How to find a grandparent with a genealogy website. September 6, 2023

As I was writing my previous post, Suicide In Sandgate, I got involved with another search that coincidentally involved the same subject, Huntington's Disease (HD).  Rather than simply tell you the story and how I solved it, I thought it would be a good idea to make this into a tutorial.  By that I mean, a lesson on how to find a birth parent.  We won't be viewing any DNA match lists here.  This search was a bit different because the DNA data didn't really mean a whole lot.  It did help me identify one of the families, but the few good matches we had were confusing, and there's an added twist that made things even more difficult.  I used Ancestry's search features to find almost everything I needed.  Although, I found some confusion there as well.  This is really a lesson involving "Thinking outside the box."  Let's see if you can come to the same result I did.  Can you find the grandmother?  You will need an Ancestry account to do a search on your own.  If you don't have one, you can simply read the hints below and see how this story unfolded.

Let's begin with the information I was given.  I was helping a woman named Angie.  Her mother, Shirley, was adopted.  Shirley was born in 1945 in Flint, Michigan.  She died around age forty from HD.  Angie was told, Shirley was put up for adoption because her mother (Angie's grandmother) was showing signs of HD herself and wasn't able to care for her child.  The goal here is to find the name of Angie's grandmother (Shirley's birth mother).  If you haven't read my previous post about Huntington's Disease, please do so now.  Understanding a little about it will help with this search, trust me.

Other than that small amount of information, I did have access to Angie's DNA match list.  There were several people related to the same guy, Philip Milton Smith (1878-1973).  Philip was sometimes listed by his middle name, Milton.  With a common last name like Smith, sometimes searches can be tricky.  Luckily, Milton isn't a super common name.  For privacy purposes, I won't use the real names of the DNA matches here, and their names aren't important anyway.  There were only four matches on the list that interested me.  Here's how they matched up with Angie:  Leonard 488cM, Carl 259cM, Margaret 351cM, John 175cM.  Both Leonard and Carl's grandparents are listed as Philip Milton Smith and Alma Louella Lent (1914-1982).  Yes, it's true, Philip did marry a woman thirty-six years younger than him.  A marriage like that can make things tricky sometimes because it confuses the generations.  Let's hope that's not the case here.  You can read about that subject in my post called, What Generation am I In?   Margaret also has Philip as her grandfather, but with a different grandmother, Mina Parrow (1892-1983).  Still fourteen years younger than him, but at least a little more appropriate.  And finally, John is Leonard's son.  Philip and Alma are his great-grandparents. provides great search tools.

With the information provided, you have enough information to find the grandmother.  It won't be easy though.  I'll get you started.  A screenshot from Ancestry is shown above.  I mentioned the DNA matches all had the same man in common.  One of the matches, Margaret, is not related to the same wife as the other matches.  That alone tells you that Angie has some relation to Philip Smith but not necessarily a relationship to either of those wives.  So, the obvious thing to do is, use Ancestry's search features to find out everything you can about Philip.  If you don't already know, Ancestry has fantastic search options that allow you to enter any information you have to possibly find a person. 

Let's enter the information we have about Philip into the system as shown above.  In the search box, you can see, I entered his name, birth year and location.  If you want to, you can enter the names of the two wives I mentioned in the spouse section.  Now you've got a place to start.  See what comes up in your search and see how far you can go with it.  Below, are several hints that will eventually reveal the grandmother.  The hints are hidden until you click on them.  Try to solve the mystery using as few hints as possible.  Good luck.  Find that grandma!

  • HINT 1

    When you search for information on Philip, on the left side of the screen, you can narrow down the information you want to see.  For example, if you only wanted to see military information, you could select that option.  One of the options is "Family Trees."  Clicking that option will show you everyone on the site who has a tree made with Philip in it.  You might find valuable information there.

  • HINT 2

    We mentioned Philip's two wives earlier.  If you looked at people's trees, and other data on Philip, you probably noticed he was actually married four times.  Start branching out and and look into other family members of Philip, and his wives families.  Lot's of information is available including census, birth, death and marriage records.

  • HINT 3

    Now for a big hint... Don't forget about the medical information we know about.  HD causes early deaths.  Who died young in this family?  Also note:  People with HD often die from other causes.  They are unable to take care of themselves, and this can create other health problems.  Another cause of death may be listed on a death certificate.  HD was probably a contibuting factor though.

  • HINT 4

    At this point, you should have discovered Philip had a wife named Selina "Lena" Gordon.  Did you find her birth and death dates?  Her death certificate is available on Ancestry.  Could she have died from Huntinton's?  It's not listed on her death certificate.  You might want to look into her family.

  • HINT 5

    Selina's death cert shows her parent's names.  If you research them, you'll find that her mother, Barbara Carr, also died young, age forty-two.  Again, Huntington's isn't listed on the death certificate.  Keep in mind, this was over one hundred years ago.  HD wasn't always identified at that time.  Selina had a younger sister named Edith Gordon.  If you find her death certificate, there it is, "Cause of death - Huntington's Chorea, Mental Disease."  She died at age thrity-four in 1934.  Now we have Philip Milton Smith associated with a family in which Huntinton's Disease exists.

  • HINT 6

    Since Selina's sister died from HD, her mother must have had it.  Selina also died very young and I have no doubt it led to her death as well.  Selina was dead long before Angie's mother was born, so Selina cannot be the grandmother we're looking for.  Did Philip and Selina have children in the short time they were married?  I could only find one on record, Gordon Smith.  If you find his death certificate, there it is again... "Cause of death - Huntington's Chorea."  He died in 1943 at age thirty-one.  Here's your next hint...  What happened to Gordon after his mother died in 1914?

  • HINT 7

    Did you find it?  After Selina died, Gordon went to live with his uncle Clinton (Philips brother) and his grandparents.  He's listed as Clinton's nephew on the 1930 census.  So what are we missing?  All of this would make sense if Selina had a daughter, right?  The daughter would have to have been born before 1914 when Selina died.  She would be the right age, she'd be biologically related to Philip Smith and a family that had HD.  You won't find a daughter of Selila on record though.  If she exists, where would she be?

  • HINT 8

    Did you notice Selina had a brother, Archie Bartlett Gordon.  Archie did NOT have HD.  He lived to be about seventy-four years old.  In 1911, he married Rose Riley and they moved to Flint Michigan.  The 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses show them living with their daughter, Virgina Gordon, who was born in 1913.  Are you getting it?


    The only thing that makes sense here is that VIRGINIA GORDON is Angie's grandmother.  She is the daughter of Philip Milton Smith and Selina Gordon.  I'll explain.  I knew from the beginning there was a DNA connection to the Smith family.  Quite a strong connection in fact.  I even thought Philip may be Angie's grandfather.  No, his marriage to Selina and her early death made it clear, they were Angie's great-grandparents.  There's only distant matches to Selina's family and it makes perfect sense that there are not many.  Their families were all small because of the young deaths due to HD.  When I saw that Selina's son, Gordon, was sent to live with Philip's brother after she died, I figured there had to be a daughter also.  She is not listed as a "niece" to Archie on the 1920, 1930 or 1940 censuses.  She's listed as "daughter."  It's very possible she was adopted by, or simply given to, Archie and Rose after Selina's death.  Virginia may not have even known she wasn't really their daughter.  How do I know she wasn't really their daughter?  In my previous post about HD, I mentioned it does not skip a generation.  One of your parents has to have the faulty gene to pass it on to a child.  Archie lived too long to have HD and his wife died from a completely different problem, lung cancer.  Virginia had to get HD from a parent.  That parent was Selina.


    So what happened to Virginia, and who is Shirley's father?  There are DNA matches to the father of Shirley, and I'm able to narrow it down to a family, but can't say for sure.  There are no DNA matches to close family members on the father's side.  Virginia was definitely not married to the father.  Shortly after giving birth to Shirley in 1945, she actually did get married to a man named Clarence Palmer.  Clarence is not the father of Shirley though.  I suspect Virginia was just starting to have problems from HD at this time.  She was not with Clarence very long.  They separated in 1948.  On the 1950 census, Virginia is being cared for by another family.  She's listed as "Long-Term Disabled."  She passed away in 1953 at age forty.  The census shows, "Number of children ever borne:  1."  I'm confident, that child was Shirley, Angie's mother.


After you've found the grandmother, take a look at the DNA numbers I provided at the beginning.  Now that you know who the grandmother is, you should be able to determine each person's relationship to Angie.  I think you'll find the numbers quite confusing though.  This is a good example of how DNA numbers can vary.  Luckily, we had several matches to help make things a little more clear.  Click the solution below after you figure out the relationships of the four people.


    Angie's great-grandparents are Philip and Selina.  Three of the DNA matches all have the same common ancestor, Philip.  They will all have the same relationship to Angie.  Leonard, Carl and Margaret are a generation older than Angie.  I like to think about this from Angie's mother's point of view.  She would be in the same generation as Leonard, Carl and Margaret.  Philip was her grandfather.  Therefore, they all have ONE grandparent in common with Shirley.  They would be her half first cousins.  Since Angie is a generation younger, they are her HALF FIRST COUSINS ONCE REMOVED.  What about John?  He has one great-grandparent in common with Angie.  He is her HALF SECOND COUSIN.  So, why is all this so unusual?  If we were to only have Leonard's DNA match, this would all be hard to believe.  That is a very high DNA match for that relationship.  Even Margaret's is a little high.  Carl's match is very normal.  Why does this happen?  A simple way to think about it is, we all inherit random DNA segments from an ancestor.  In this case, Angie and Leonard just happened to inherit a lot of the same segments.

Next, find out how DNA can solve a court case from over 80 years ago.

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