Why It’s Important To Remember Long Forgotten Ancestors

This past week I spent time researching my maternal side…the Dennis line of Giles County, Virginia. While I pieced together the family of Henry G. Dennis and Mary Jane Borden, I was drawn to their son, John Borden Dennis. He is not a direct ancestor. In fact, he’s my 1st cousin 4x removed. There was nothing special about him, but I found his life’s journey interesting.

Giles County is in southwestern Virginia on the West Virginia border.

Giles County, Virginia Genealogy, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Giles_County,_Virginia_Genealogy: accessed 6 Sep 2023)

Born in the late 1850s in Pearisburg, Giles, Virginia, John stayed with his family through 1870. So far, I can’t find him in the 1880 census. My guess is he was moving west because in 1894 he resided in Santa Clara County, California, about 50 miles south of San Francisco. The voter register for that year was very informative. It listed John Borden Dennis as a 37-year-old, 5’6 1/2″ tall with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and light brown hair. He worked as a laborer with a birthplace of Virginia, and residence in Moreland, California.1

By 1900 he moved closer to San Franciso, settling in San Mateo, California. He was a servant/laborer in the home of William Hull. Then by 1910 he relocated even further north to Tehama County, California, and worked for the Stanford Vina Ranch Camp as a hired man. 1920 found John near the Mexican border working as a hired man in Calexico, California. Since the census is only taken every 10 years, it’s possible John moved even more frequently, but there are no records to reveal this.

You may ask yourself why I spent time researching a distant cousin who stayed single and moved around a lot as a laborer. I think it’s because my husband and I have worked and traveled through many of the same places John worked and traveled.

Rob and I vacationed in San Mateo, a beautiful place. It was during this trip that we ventured to Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco. I didn’t enjoy the winding road to get there, but the views were worth the headache!

Calexico is also a place that my husband and I know well. We have taken many truckloads out of there.

According to John’s death certificate, his final days were spent at the Midnight Mission in French Camp, San Joaquin County, California, just south of Stockton.2 He is buried at the San Joaquin County Hospital Cemetery. Find A Grave states this cemetery was used for those who died at the hospital and could not afford burial anywhere else.3

The company my husband and I used to drive for has a terminal in the next town over from French Camp. Another place we have in common.

I don’t know the details of John’s life. Was he happy moving around so much or did he do it just to survive? Did he stay in touch with his family back in Virginia? These are questions I probably won’t ever find answers to.

Since we just celebrated Labor Day, I wanted to recognize someone in my past who was a true laborer. I may not think of him again, however, today he is remembered. Researching this man didn’t extend my family tree but it did fill it out that much more. It’s important to remember those overlooked individuals who may not have anyone else to do so. They are just as important to your legacy as your direct line.

Do you have ancestors you need to find? Please reach out as I’d love to help you find them.

Genealogy tip: Interesting stories can be found in ancestors other than our direct line. Take a little time to research their lives and you too may find similarities with those from your past.

1 Santa Clara County, California, Great Register, vol. 1894, John Borden Dennis; digital images, Ancestry  (www.ancestry.com: accessed 6 Sep 2023), image 65; citing FHL microfilm 977290.

2 “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:ZZ4N-G7PZ: accessed 8 Sep 2023), John B Dennis, 1935.


Celebrating One Year: A Journey of Growth, Success, and Learning

This week I am celebrating the one-year anniversary of my genealogy blog.


What started as a way to explore and write about my family’s history has evolved into a fascinating journey of discovery and connection. Over the past year, I’ve found amazing documents, sifted through old photographs, and tried to uncover the stories of my ancestors’ lives. After starting and stopping a few times, 1 September 2022 was the official start date for my genealogy blog, entitled Highway Genealogy. I’m proud to say I’ve consistently written a blog post each week since then.

Genealogy is more than just tracing names and dates; it’s about connecting with our roots on a deeper level. As I navigated through military records, census records, immigration documents, and newspaper articles, I discovered stories that have been long forgotten. Two of those stories were fascinating to research. I discovered the struggles of Andrew Bothel who fought in the Civil War and the tragic death of John McKamey who died in the Fraterville Mine Explosion.

Genealogy is also a journey of personal growth and self-discovery. Throughout this year, I’ve honed my research skills; skills that not only enriched my understanding of my family’s history but also gave me the stepping stone to start my own genealogy business.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of genealogy is the accidental treasures that surface during research. A wedding photo tucked behind another, a certificate of education hidden in family papers—it’s these kinds of discoveries that add an element of magic to our journey. I always knew I wanted to know more about my great-grandfather, Samuel Patrick Donahoo. After a few phone calls, I was able to see his face for the first time. This is the picture that led to a Genealogy Happy Dance.

As I look forward to the future of my genealogy blog, I’m excited about the endless possibilities that lie ahead…DNA, new avenues for research, and becoming a certified genealogist through the Board for Certification of Genealogists. This one-year anniversary is not just a celebration of the past; it’s a stepping stone toward even greater discoveries.

As I celebrate today, I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore my heritage and share my findings with you. Here’s to many more years of unraveling the past and embracing the future!

If you want to find your ancestors, please reach out. I’d love to help with your journey to the past.

Genealogy tip: A little bit of effort consistently implemented over time gets you more than big bursts done sporadically. Take some time each day or each week to do a little research.

How To Make Sense Of Your DNA Matches

It’s been a few weeks since I finished my Beginning DNA studies at IGHR (Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research). Now it’s time to put all of that education to good use. You can learn more about the course I took here.

Like many of you, I took an Ancestry DNA test. It was fun to see where in the world my DNA says I am from. You probably did the same. But did you stop there? Or did you look at your DNA matches to see who you are related to? For me, it was time to delve into that match list.

Your closest matches will be at the top. I’ve tested my mom, sister, and niece, so they are listed first. You may recognize people right away by either their name or surname and know how they are related to you. If you do, click Yes for the question, Do you recognize them? You’ll want to do two things next:

  • Click Edit Relationship and change the default relationship Ancestry gave you, to what you know to be true. For example, Ancestry says 2nd – 3rd cousin, but you know this person is your 2nd cousin once removed – make that change.
  • In the notes field write down how that person is related to you. For example, your connection may be John Smith > Carol Smith > Richard Doe > match. You can even put an emoji at the beginning to easily tell what side of the family this person comes from… 💛 John Smith > Carol Smith > Richard Doe > match. I use https://emojipedia.org/symbols. By doing this now, you won’t have to wonder in the future how this person is related to you.

If you don’t recognize them, skip and go to the next match you do know. Get the easy wins first. Change the relationship to the correct one and make notes.

Next, go to those matches that have trees. When you click on either their name or the tree link, you’ll be taken to a page that shows their tree. Any common ancestors will be highlighted in green. Hopefully, you’ll see the connection right away. Change your relationship to the correct one and make notes.

When you look at each match, always check to make sure the amount of shared DNA corresponds to your relationship. There is a wonderful tool called The Shared cM Project. You enter the amount of DNA you share with your match and see all the possible relationships in both a list and a chart. I use it with every match.

Now, comes the real fun…those matches that have initials or some weird concoction of letters and numbers for their real names, have no trees, or have a tree but everyone is listed as private. There is no easy answer for these matches, but I would suggest:

  • Did Ancestry tell you what side of the family they are on? This is a clue.
  • Use The Shared cM Project to see all the ways you could be related.
  • Click on the Shared Matches tab. This shows the people that both you and your match are related to. Do you recognize people on this list? You should be able to at least tell what side you need to look at.
  • Click the Message tab and send a message to your match. Let them know you have taken a DNA test and you see that you may be related on your father’s/mother’s side. You don’t have to give them your life’s story, but a few names may be helpful. Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back from them as many people don’t want to be bothered.

For those matches that are not easy to recognize at first, take any clue you see and figure out their genealogy. You may have to build their tree to see how you connect. Using The Shared cM Project in conjunction with building trees will help you determine how far back you have to go to see that ancestral connection.

I hope this brief introduction to your DNA match list has been helpful. You may connect with new cousins and find stories or pictures that were lost to you until now. It does take a bit of time and work, but it’s worth it.

If you need some guidance climbing your family tree, please contact me. I’d love to help you with your journey to the past.

Genealogy tip: To find even more matches, you can upload your raw Ancestry DNA results into MyHeritage or Family Tree DNA for a small unlock fee. Uploading your results into GEDmatch is free. Make sure you read and agree with each company’s terms of use.