DNA, Family and the 1940 Census

Here I go again. The DNA junkie with another family mystery.

Countdown to 1940 Census

What do DNA, my family and the 1940 census have in common?

I can only hope that what they end up having in common is help in solving a mystery.

My brother and I have both done autosomal DNA testing. At Family Tree DNA, that’s the Family Finder test. (I’ve also done it at 23andMe where it’s called the Relative Finder.) Autosomal DNA testing is the kind that works across gender lines so you don’t have to find a direct male line from father to son to son (YDNA or Y-DNA) or a direct female line from mother to daughter to daughter (mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA).

He and I only share one parent — he descends from our father’s first marriage; I descend from the second — and, as far as we can tell, our mothers had no ancestors in common other than, roughly, give or take a few generations, Adam and Eve.

So we know darned good and well that anybody we both match is somewhere on our father’s side of the family. And one of our recent matches poses a humdinger of a question.

Let’s called our match John Doe. His autosomal DNA results show that he matches my brother as a 3rd to 5th cousin, and likely 4th cousin. He matches me as a 4th to distant cousin. He was born in Chicago in the 1930s. That’s the city where my grandparents settled1 after they emigrated from Germany in 1925.2 John’s parents weren’t married. As a young man, he was told only that his father was European and that he was a car mechanic there in the Windy City.

And oh boy… do John and I ever want to find out just who in my father’s family turns out to be John’s father! John, of course, hopes to close the book on this central mystery of his life. Me, I just think it’d be too much fun to find out about yet another womanizing scoundrel in the family.3

The genetic relationship isn’t close enough for the culprit to be my father, who wasn’t nearly old enough or smooth enough to pass for a car mechanic around the time John was conceived anyway. Think skinny baby-faced junior high schooler here. It isn’t close enough for my grandfather either. And I do realize that because of the way recombination affects the way DNA is passed from generation to generation, this match could end up being farther back, even much farther back, than estimated.

But oh man… there was a whole passel of cousins from this German family rattling around Chicago at the time who might have, could have, maybe were…

Cousins A and B, brothers to each other, are my prime candidates.4 A child of theirs would be a third cousin to my brother and me. Both would have been in their 20s at the time, and I know they were living in Chicago then. The hitch is that I can’t find this family at all on the 1930 census so I don’t know what either of them might have done for a living then (and they may still have been in school in 1930).

Cousins C and D, brothers to each other, and Cousin E were all first cousins to my father. A child of theirs would be a second cousin to my brother and me. So they’re less likely than A and B, but not out of the realm of possibility. C and D were the oldest of all of these cousins, in their late 20s or early 30s and living in Chicago. Neither held a skilled job in the 1930 census and either of them could easily have gone for skilled training as the Depression deepened and so been a mechanic by the time of John’s birth. E — like A and B — would have been in his 20s, and though I can find his family on the 1930 census, he wasn’t listed as holding a job.

So… 42 days to go to the 1940 census.5 I’m feverishly hunting around in Stephen P. Morse’s fabulous One-Step utilities to get the 1940 enumeration districts for the candidates’ families and reading through the materials that the National Archives has posted about 1940 census records.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that the 1940 census is some years removed from John’s birth. And yeah, yeah, I know it’s possible any one of these families, maybe even all of ’em, could have been missed in that census. And yeah, I know that somebody who was looking for some fun on the side might have lied about what he did for a living. I even know that maybe this match’s father won’t turn out to be any of my candidates but will be a more distant relative.

I’m not looking for absolute proof here. Just for one of these five men to show up on that census as a car mechanic. That’s not too much to ask, is it?


  1. See 1930 U.S. census, Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 16-598, p. 18B (penned), dwelling 155, family 386, Hugo E. Geissler household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 441.
  2. See Manifest, S.S. George Washington, Jan-Feb 1925, p. 59 (stamped), lines 4-6, Geissler family; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  3. See “Friedrike, how COULD you?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Jan 2012.
  4. You’re not really looking for a citation here, are you? C’mon, folks! We’re talking out of wedlock stuff here!
  5. Federal law restricts access to the census for 72 years. See 92 Stat. 915; Public Law 95-416; October 5, 1978 (http://www.census.gov/history/pdf/NARA_Legislation.pdf : accessed 18 Feb 2012).
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14 Responses to DNA, Family and the 1940 Census

  1. Randy Seaver says:


    city Directories may provide you some answers to your question of which cousin was an auto mechanic. They usually listed all working people, their address and their occupation.

    Check Ancestry.com first…you may have to find a repository with the actual volumes to get complete coverage.

    Good luck — Randy

  2. Celia Lewis says:

    Good luck, Judy! So many possibilities, so few clues… bloodhound on the trail! You’re bound to find a result that seems most likely and then off to search for more relatives from that likely person. DNA is certainly helping in situations like this, eh?!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      DNA really does help, Celia, but our big problem with my German family is very small family size. Two kids was the biggest family in the last two or three generations. At least with autosomal testing we can test across gender lines (males against females and vice versa) but there’s still an awfully small pool of people to test against, period.

  3. Laurie Huey says:

    Did your grandparents, who immigrated and settled in Chicago in 1925, join family that had immigrated earlier?

    I ask because (1) wouldn’t the match with John Doe possibly come from his mother’s side of the family also? and (2) based on the relationship ranges you’ve been given, I think you may need to reach farther back in time to find a common ancestor.

    I’m just a DNA dabbler, though, no expert, just fascinated by it.

    We just received the results from the Family Finder test for a man that I am helping. One of the matches (who shared the most cM with him) had a relationship range of 2nd to 4th cousin with a suggested relationship of 3rd cousin. The match had his GEDCOM available, and in it I saw that both men shared great great grandparents. They are third cousins.

    He has 12 other suggested 3rd cousin matches. I don’t recognize any of the surnames, so we have our work cut out for us identifying a common ancestor.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Good question, Laurie! The answer in our case is that John Doe has a half-sister (child of his mother but not his father) who has also tested and does not match my brother or me at all. So the most likely place for the common ancestor is our father’s side and his father’s side. But of course, as you and I both have noted, the relationship COULD be farther back, even MUCH farther back, which would put it in Germany. But hey… I can dream, can’t I? Just one little ol’ car mechanic in that census???

      • Laurie Huey says:

        You are actually lucky to have these half relationships to narrow down the playing field, aren’t you? Here’s wishing you find that car mechanic in the census! I hope everyone has signed up to help index the 1940 census. Every little bit will help.

        Have John and your brother taken y-DNA tests, and how did those come out?

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          The half-relationships are VERY useful here, for sure.

          There’s no Y-DNA match, but that doesn’t surprise us at all. My paternal grandfather had only one brother, who died in WWI without known children, and only one son, my father. My great grandfather is the Hermann Eduard Geissler whose mother was the subject of my Friedrike, how COULD you? post (unmarried mother, no father listed) and was himself an only child.

          • Laurie Huey says:

            Guess I’d be looking at my paternal grandmother’s line too. Any of her brothers tag along to Chicago?

            (I’ll quit pestering you now. :) I do love a good story though.)

          • Judy G. Russell says:

            I love a good story too! As far as I’ve been able to determine, my paternal grandmother had only sisters. There may have been one brother but if so he did not come to Chicago. There are, however, possibilities further back in her family that I can’t even begin to rule out at this point. Sure would be nice to find a cousin in the crowd that stayed in her home town to test!

  4. Barbara Schenck says:

    Judy, never having done anything with autosomal DNA testing, I am curious if a person could share a portion of your ‘results’ and not be related (or should I say, known to be related).

    I guess what I’m asking is, I had a 37 marker mtDNA test done. Another woman I now know, but didn’t before we did this, also had one done. We were exact matches, and our earliest known female ancestors lived within 4 miles of each other in 18th century Cornwall, but we didn’t know how far back they were related. We each had the full mtDNA sequence done and it turned out we were exact except for one marker on the full sequence. So, of course, we still don’t know anything about the distance of our connection or who our connecting ancestor was.

    But in an autosomal DNA, because it’s so much more contemporary, could you be sure that John Doe’s “connection” to your family was likely in the Chicago time-frame, after or around 1925 (or whenever the rest of your family came from Germany before or after that). Or could he be connected five generations previously back in Germany — or even ten or more? Or would the evidence of his connection to you if it were that far back be such a small part of the autosomal DNA sequene that it wouldn’t be evident?

    Sorry if that’s an incomprehensible question. Tell me to go away and rephrase it, if you can’t make sense of it.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nope, you phrased it just right. The big difference between the YDNA and mtDNA tests on one hand and autosomal testing on the other is that YDNA and mtDNA both are handed down in basically the same form for many many generations. You can have mutations here and there, but you can certainly have a 67-for-67 YDNA match where the common ancestor is literally many centuries in the past and the same is true (perhaps even MORE true) of mtDNA.

      Autosomal DNA testing is much more prone to changes in each generation (check out this short video on recombination for a great explanation). So you’re generally going to find the common ancestor (if you can find one, which often just isn’t possible given the problems we all have in our paper trails) within the 125 years before the birth of the person tested — roughly five generations total. That’s not a sure thing: some folks show up as possible 3rd or 4th cousins who end up as 7th-8th cousins, and vice versa. But it’s roughly what you can expect.

      That’s a long way of saying nope. No assurance at all that it’s in the Chicago time frame. But I can hope!!!

      • Barbara Schenck says:

        Thanks. I’ll be keeping fingers crossed for you and your mysterious auto mechanic. Just hoping your family is more truthful than mine when it comes to details.

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