I helped a guy in Germany find his unknown father via genetic genealogy

I’ve done genealogy since I was a kid, and several years ago I uploaded my DNA to MyHeritage; one feature of the website provides me with a list of genetic matches and our relationship. Most of them are quite distant, such as 3rd-5th cousin, but occasionally some close matches appear (e.g., my mother’s first cousin, whom I met years ago, showed up one day in my list of matches).

Several weeks ago, a German in his mid-50’s showed up as a close match. Let’s call him “Hans” to protect his privacy. I was intrigued, because over the past several decades I’ve traced my ancestry very thoroughly, and the latest any of my ancestors arrived in North America was in the early 1800s; my most recent German ancestry is via the Germanna colony in Virginia in the early 1700s. So I contacted him through the website and asked him where his family was from in the U.S. He replied

The problem is, I don't know who my father is or was. I know he's American. Unfortunately, my mother never told me who he was. It's a big gap in my life that I wish I could fill. I'm sorry I wish I had some information for you.

His response struck a chord with me: here was a guy my age who never knew who his father was. “This is sad,” I told my wife. “I can’t believe he doesn’t know his father, and his mother won’t tell him anything! I’ve been doing genealogy for years, surely I can help this guy find his father!”

I asked him for more information: all he knew about his father was that he served at a specific U.S. base in Germany in the late 60’s and briefly dated his mother; his mother refused to tell Hans his father’s name or anything about him. I asked for his mother’s birth year, reasoning that his father was probably her age or older. Hans said no, his mother always preferred much younger men; for example, his stepfather is more than a decade younger than his mother (this is an important fact, as we will see). Hans was skeptical I would find anything useful, but I didn’t care: the game was afoot!

MyHeritage looks at our DNA overlap and tells us how we are related. There are three possible paths, because each are consistent with the amount of our shared DNA:

Given our age is roughly the same, he’s too old to be my 1st cousin once or twice removed via the first line of descent, and too young via the third line, so we must be related via the second line. And given our similar ages and the very few generations involved, Hans must be my second cousin: we share a common great-grandparent.

Next, I had him send me a list of all his genetic matches from MyHeritage. I have 2nd and 3rd cousin matches for all of my great-grandparents, so if we had a close match in common, I would know our connection. We have a single common match. From the family tree that our common match posted on MyHeritage I can see that he and I share a common great-grandfather, John Thomas Curb. J.T. was from the Texas side of my family and was a farmer and deputy in Post, Texas. J.T.’s daughter Velma was my paternal grandmother, so I told Hans that his father must be one of my father’s male cousins on the Curb side of the family.

Photo of John Thomas Curb
John Thomas Curb (1876-1963), via findagrave.com

Hans was amazed and excited. “Do you really think you can find my father?” “Yes,” I replied, “because your father has to be one of J.T.’s grandsons; it’s just a matter of tracking them all down and figuring out which of one of them was at that U.S. base in the late 60’s.”

Luckily Curb is an unusual name in the U.S.; if your last name is Curb we are probably distant cousins. Someone posted a Curb family tree on Ancestry.com showing all of J.T.’s descendants. Unfortunately, J.T. and his wife had five sons and three daughters! The daughters collectively had only one son (my father), leaving ten grandsons via the five sons (ignoring the common match’s father and uncles; the common match is also a second cousin of Hans, which rules out that branch of the family). As is the nature of our family, almost every grandson served in the military in the 40s, 50s or 60s.

I was able to exclude several candidates based on early deaths, dates of service, or branch of service (Hans was certain his father served in the Army). One grandson served in the Texas National Guard and his unit told me they were never stationed in Germany in the 60s.  That left only a couple of candidates.

I found one likely candidate’s memorial site online and sent his photo to Hans; we both agreed we did not see any family resemblance. I decided to try and track down the one grandson of J.T. for whom I could not find an obituary, reasoning that he might still be alive. Let’s call him “Robert”. I purchased a membership in Intelius; this is a data broker that collects and integrates data on people (by the way, the amount of information sitting out there about you is truly frightening!). I couldn’t find a working number for Robert but did manage to find his daughter; she sent me his telephone number.

So I called Robert, explaining that I was working on the Curb family genealogy and wanted to ask him a few questions. He mentioned that he served in Vietnam, and I asked if he was ever stationed in Germany. “Yes,” he replied, naming the base that Hans had given me. I asked him if he remembered dating a German woman and gave him the name of Han’s mother. He didn’t remember the name but did remember dating an older German woman when he was stationed at the base (Robert was 22 at the time and and Hans’ mother was 32).

I explained why I was calling and asked if I could give his number to Hans (Robert doesn’t have an email address). He wasn’t sure, so I said I would call back in a week. That would give him time to talk to his son and daughter about the situation. The next week I called three times; each time he answered the phone and immediately hung up. Clearly he did not want to talk to me.

Hans was bummed, as you can imagine. I emailed Robert’s daughter and explained the situation, telling her that Hans would just like to correspond via email with her and was interested in seeing a photo of Robert. Luckily she obliged and sent on the photos, and allowed me to share her email with Hans.

So hopefully at some point in the future his father will change his mind, but at least Hans knows who his father was, and also a bit about his father’s family, as I’ve shared my Curb genealogy research with him.

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By Stephen

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Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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