Wrong Dad

In genealogy, we spend a lot of time trying to identify the unknown father of an ancestor. To celebrate Father’s Day this month, I thought I’d pick a dad from my tree and chat about how I got him wrong. 

I have some friends who became interested in family history and immediately looked for education on how to do it right, before they actually dug in. And then there are folks like me, who spent years working on our pedigree charts, more or less self-taught. Eventually, I discovered classes and conferences and webinars too, and I’ve learned a lot about genealogy best practices since those early days. I apply those standards to my research now, when I work to fill in more blanks in my family tree. But it seems I really ought to revisit some of the conclusions I came to years ago.

Case in point: the father of Magdalena Dorothea Grahling, who was born 19 Feb 1832 in Buffalo, Erie County, New York, married Michael Miller in 1848, and died there in 1883. (Hereinafter, I’ll call her Maggie to save space, though she appeared in records by several other variants.)


[Spoiler alert: despite the title of this blog, DNA gets only a brief mention at the end.]

Background: I am incredibly lucky to have a letter written by Maggie’s daughter Adele. In it, Dell provided a family record documenting the birth and death data for her parents and all their children. Even better, Dell also identified her mother’s parents: Jacob Grahling and Louisa de Stoeffel, from Woerth. 

So I’d confidently added Maggie’s mom and dad to my family tree and looked for more information about them. When were they born and when and where did they die?

There was only one Jacob Grahling in Erie County New York old enough to be Maggie’s father in the 1840 census. He appeared in the 1850 and 1860 censuses too, which reported he was born about 1788 in Germany or France. [Woerth is in the Alsace region, which belonged to Germany and France at different points in history, so I wasn’t too worried about that apparent conflict.] Jacob was 72 in 1860 and had disappeared by the 1870 census, so I’d put in my tree that he died between 1860 and 1870, likely in Buffalo, Erie County, New York. I had not found a cemetery record for him.

Jacob’s wife in the 1850 and 1860 census was named Margaret. I was expecting the name Louisa. Now, I knew that Germans often have two given names (the second name usually the ‘call name’, i.e. what they were called). So what a relative writes in a family record might not match what a census taker enters. Margaret and Louisa might have been the same woman. But the 1855 New York state census (which did specify relationships) showed Jacob (age 67) and wife Margaret (age 68) with a daughter Elizabeth (age 18). Since Margaret was unlikely to have given birth at age 50, I’d concluded that Elizabeth was more likely the daughter of Jacob and his first wife. Louisa had had Maggie in 1832 and Elizabeth in 1837, I’d theorized, and she probably died before the 1850 census. I added that info to my tree. See Image 1.

Grahling initial - Edited

Image 1.


Did any of you record similar conclusions in your genealogy when you were starting out? 

Lately, I’ve started drafting family sketches about my ancestors, which means revisiting those old entries. Writing narratives involves more in-depth research… and I’ve developed better analysis skills in recent years too. When I began to write up Maggie’s story, here is what I actually learned. 

The conundrum

There were two Jacob Grahlings born in Woerth, Alsace, in 1788, to different parents. Both young men married in the 1810’s and had several children in Alsace (and each named a son Jacob too). And then both families emigrated to Buffalo, New York, between 1830 and 1834.

Who’d have guessed? 

[Not me, apparently–because I was a rookie genealogist then, and I was satisfied that I had enough data. By the way, this post isn’t a polished case study, with all of the evidence I found and citations so you can see how I came to my revised conclusions. That would be too long for my blog, and I’m still tying up loose ends. Today I just want to share an embarrassing example of the dangers of making assumptions based on incomplete research.]

Two Jacobs

(Note: records in the region before about 1810 appear in German. Later records, at least prior to these families emigrating, appear in French.)

Jacob [1] (aka Philip Jacob aka Philippe Jacques Grähling)  was born in Woerth on 4 Jun 1788. He married Margaret Hepting and they gave their first child the call name Jacob. Both Jacob and Jacob Jr. declared their intent to become naturalized citizens in Erie County, NY in 1834. Jacob Jr. married another Margaret (Helwig), and their daughter Elizabeth was born in Buffalo in 1838. Jacob Jr. died just two years later; Jacob Sr. was the executor of his estate. In the 1855 census, teenage Elizabeth was living with her grandparents Jacob and Margaret; not her parents as the enumerator had recorded. In Jacob’s 1870 probate, he left his estate to his one surviving son Frederick and to the children of Elizabeth (married name Scheu), who was deceased by then. 

Jacob [2] (aka Johan Jacob aka Jean Jacques Grähling) was born in Woerth on 28 February 1788. He married Louise Stäbel (not de Stoeffel) on 24 May 1819. He and Louisa had several children born in Woerth between 1820 and 1828. Apparently, they had a final child, Maggie, born in 1832 in Buffalo, as the letter from Dell claimed. Jacob, a weaver, likely died by 1834, when Louisa married a dyer: Alsace-immigrant George Heimlich. Perhaps they met through the families’ related occupations. They may have lived in the same urban neighborhood; attended the same church. Lousia had three more children with George, one of whom later served in the Civil War. Census records indicate Louisa died between 1875 and 1880.    

See image 2. Major corrections to the original are highlighted in red. (My tree also now extends farther back on these lines than is shown here.)

Grahling revised - Edited

Image 2.


Here is a smattering of some of the genealogy guidelines I applied this time, which led me to correct my tree.

Lessons learned

One piece of evidence can be wrong. Always look more than one place for an answer to your question. And always look for sources that more experienced genealogists would consider essential. I hadn’t done nearly enough research initially, relying primarily on easily accessible census records. Why hadn’t I looked for Jacob’s will, one of the best sources for evidence of kinship? At the time, it was probably difficult and not online. That may be a valid reason to defer research, but it’s not an excuse to draw a conclusion prematurely.

Know the laws of the time and place. By the 1830s, New York state law required that probate proceedings identify all the heirs-at-law, even if a will excluded some or all of them from inheriting. When I finally did find Jacob’s January 1870 petition for probate (under his formal name Philip J Grahling), I found his next-of-kin were Elizabeth’s young children and Jacob’s son Frederick. There was no mention of Maggie, even though she didn’t die until 1883. This is ‘negative evidence’, where the absence of data helps answer a question. Maggie wasn’t a daughter of this Jacob Grahling who died in December 1869. 

Write up a family sketch! This one isn’t a genealogy standard, but it’s a tip I love! Write a narrative about the family, their challenges and choices and daily lives. Doing so can also incorporate Elizabeth Shown Mills’s iconic tip to develop a FAN club — identify a network of Friends, Associates, and Neighbors. I include extended Family in that F category.

Since Dell’s letter said the family came from Woerth, I was able to find Jacob and Louisa’s marriage record there and the 1820’s birth records for Maggie’s older siblings. That helped me place the family in Buffalo. Jacob’s widow purchased some land in Buffalo in 1834, after her remarriage. When she and her husband sold it in 1846, the grantors were Lucy [Louisa] and George Heimlich, Salome and Peter Dietrich, and Jacob Grahling. Salome and Jacob were two of Jacob Sr. and Louisa’s children with birth records in Woerth. Their other surviving children were minors at the time of the deed, so not named. 

Writing up the family sketch prompted me to remember another important lesson: don’t neglect deeds as a source for identifying kinship

Consider factors like occupations, literacy, proximity, etc. too.

Maggie and her husband and children lived across the street from Louisa and George Heimlich, who I hypothesize were her mother and stepfather.

Jacob [1] died in 1869. He and his two sons had been farmers in Erie County, New York.

Jacob [2]  died by 1834, leaving no surviving probate papers. Only two of his children born in Woerth were still alive when U.S. census records reported occupations and household members. Jacob Jr. became a wheelwright, a wagon maker, and a blacksmith. Salome married a wagon maker. 

Maggie’s husband was a wagon maker, blacksmith, and carriage maker. Which Jacob Grahling family is a better fit for her?


In the process of drafting that family sketch, complete with timeline and maps, I looked at city directories, newspapers, church records, vital records, deeds, probate records, and cemetery records–not just grave markers, but records showing who purchased the plot and who else is buried there. I didn’t do that to find answers for my pedigree chart; I thought I already had those answers! But going the extra mile showed me my mistakes.

With the new research, I found negative evidence to dispute my original hypothesis. And I found lots of indirect evidence to place Maggie with the right Jacob’s family in New York. For example, I have several records showing Salome was the daughter of Jacob [2], and in the 1880 census, as a widow, she lived in Maggie’s household and was identified as the sister-in-law of Maggie’s husband.

Maggie’s father was certainly the Jacob Grähling [2] who died between 1831 and 1834, not the Jacob Grähling [1] who died in 1869. Her mother Louisa Stäbel (not de Stoeffel) died between 1875 and 1880, not before 1850.

What about DNA? 

Occasionally, we are trying to solve a birth parent question, for example when we know there is an adoption or MPE (misattributed parentage event). That’s not the situation here. I have no reason to think Maggie was adopted, but it doesn’t matter. I just want to know which Jacob Grahling family in Erie County, New York, was the one she considered family. In that case, if the documentary evidence is convincing, DNA evidence may not be needed any more than, say, the Sanborn maps I consulted. But if documentary evidence alone is unconvincing, DNA evidence can make a case stronger. 

I’m confident in the strength of my documentary evidence for this case; I don’t think DNA evidence is required. Furthermore, autosomal DNA is not always practical when the potential testers are 5th cousins or more distant; any matching DNA segment could come from many generations further back, and the analysis is complicated by issues like potential pedigree collapse and incomplete trees. 

Out of curiosity, though, I did look to see if I had any relevant ThruLines or DNA matches with Grahlings in their family trees on Ancestry. Finding some might not be proof but could still be useful. Maybe I would find a match who had family letters or other genealogical treasures! However, there were no ThruLines or Grahling matches. Maggie had Heimlich half-siblings, but I have no DNA matches with Heimlich or variants in their trees either. 

A lack of matches at this distance is not unexpected and doesn’t weaken my case.

In conclusion…

Have you ever run into situations where more than one person shared the same name, living in the same area around the same time? For example, maybe someone decided that a patriot was their ancestor, but they were really descended from someone else with the same name?

I have. It’s not that uncommon. And I figure, we were all beginners once. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to revisit some of our rookie conclusions.

I have to admit, I had fun with this case! Remember Jacob 1‘s granddaughter Elizabeth? Turns out her husband was the uncle of Jacob 2‘s grandson’s wife!  But that’s another story….

Happy Father’s Day!

June 2020 © Ann Raymont, CG®


2 thoughts on “Wrong Dad

  1. smpfamily

    I have done several of these things! Early on, I wrote down what people told me. Later, I would try to find records that seemed to match. It was only with more experience that I learned to look for other sources of information and pull at the extra threads that sometimes did not seem to fit the tapestry. It seemed unlikely that two Jacob Grahlings born in Woerth, Alsace, in 1788, to different parents may have both immigrated to Buffalo, New York, but you figured it out and told the story well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicole Dyer

    I did this as well in the beginning. Mine stemmed from an assumption about census records as well. Thanks for sharing your tips about family sketches, laws and evidence! This was a great post.

    Liked by 1 person


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