When we think of family lines our surname ancestry is often the first thing that comes to mind. Our initial interest in genealogy and the broader topic of family history is likely to be curiosity about our father’s male ancestors. We might then expand our interest to explore our mother’s male ancestors and, more broadly, each of our grandparents and the families they grew up in. But what about our chain of maternal ancestors? They might not get the attention they deserve because they don’t typically carry a surname from generation to generation. In fact, that is one of the factors that makes our discovery of their identities and lives a greater challenge.
Finding our maternal ancestors
We don’t have to delve back many generations in our ancestry to find a mother referred to as Mrs. John Smith. If we are in fact dealing with such a common name, sorting out the right John Smith from others of the same name can be quite a challenge. But Mrs. John Smith, or even Mrs. Clyde Fisher can present a whole new level of difficulty. If we don’t know from personal family acquaintance that Clyde’s wife’s name was Idell we need to find records, letters, pictures, or something else that relates them as husband and wife and provides her given name. Further research might be required to learn that her given name was actually Florence Idell. We still might not have discovered that her surname at birth was Dennis. If a woman was married more than once we encounter further challenges in finding evidence of her life.
A corollary puzzle comes when we try to find married daughters. Why would we bother with that? Well, they were an integral part of their family, important in the lives of our direct ancestors. We might want to identify their descendants who show up as DNA testing matches. But even for strictly genealogical research, finding the families of our ancestors’ brothers and sisters can lead to information about their parents. A sister’s death certificate might reveal their mother’s maiden name. Although this is secondary information in regard to proving her name, it is a vital clue in the search for her identity before marriage.
DNA and our family lines
Most of the DNA in each of our cells resides in 23 pairs of chromosomes. Autosomal DNA, in Chromosomes 1-22, shapes personal characteristics aside from gender. Our autosomal DNA comes in segments that have been passed to us from any of our ancestral lines. By contrast, Y DNA (for males only) comes only from our all-male line of fathers.
X and Y chromosomes, which are paired on Chromosome 23, determine our gender. Mothers always provide an X chromosome to their children. If the father also provides an X chromosome, the child’s gender is female. If the father provides a Y chromosome, the child is genetically male. Most of us understand that Y DNA is passed down from fathers to sons. Because that DNA seldom changes in its passage through generations, it provides a very good map for common male-line ancestry among men.
So then, X DNA maps our all-female line, right? Well, no. Females receive an X chromosome from each parent, not just from their mother. My X chromosomes are a mix of the X chromosomes that Mom received from her mother and her father. Mom’s father’s X chromosomes came from his mother, but Mom’s mother’s X chromosomes are a mix of the X chromosomes she received from her mother and father. X DNA comes from a subset of our family lines, never from father to son.
A small portion of the DNA in our cells is in mitochondria, not in chromosomes. Mitochondrial DNA is passed by a mother to each of her children, male and female. Fathers do not pass on their mitochondrial DNA. Thus our mitochondrial DNA comes only from our all-female line of mothers. I received my mitochondrial DNA from Mom, but my son and daughter received theirs from my wife Dee, their mother.
Rachel Powell Dennis’s family
Lois Kidder, Marie Fisher, Idell Dennis and Rachel Powell are the most recent in my line of maternal ancestors. Rachel’s mother Amy Clifton and Amy’s mother Ann Borton extend that known lineage two more generations. I’ve seen a tree on Ancestry that identifies Ann’s mother as Sarah Peacock, Sarah’s mother as Susannah Ballinger, and Susannah’s mother as Mary Elizabeth Elkington in colonial New Jersey but I haven’t attempted yet to verify that information.
Rachel Powell was born in Mill Creek Township, Williams County, Ohio on March 11, 1854. She was the daughter of Joseph Powell and Amy Clifton, who were born and married in Gloucester County, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. Rachel’s parents were married at Gloucester Point, now in Camden County, New Jersey, on November 4, 1840. Rachel was apparently the seventh child of Joseph and Amy Powell.
Rachel’s mother Amy died on March 5, 1854 shortly after Rachel’s birth. Newly-met cousins of mine have seen information suggesting that Rachel might have been nursed by a Borton cousin. Rachel’s father Joseph Powell married Louisa Goss about 1855 so Rachel would have been raised by Joseph and Louisa, who had eight children born of their marriage.
Rachel’s husband John Dennis was one of my Civil War veteran ancestors. He served in the 111th Ohio Infantry regiment. I remember my granduncle Waldo Fisher, Marie Fisher’s younger brother, telling me when I was a teenager about John “Bull” Dennis’s valor as a soldier. I think the only bull was Waldo’s. Mom’s memory of her great-grandmother Rachel Dennis was her gruff assertion that “kids are goats!” Rachel apparently didn’t think it appropriate to call children kids.
Rachel married John Samuel Dennis on October 13, 1872 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. Their marriage produced nine children:
- Joseph Clinton Dennis was born on July 20, 1873 in Michigan. He died in Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan on November 2, 1897.
- Mary Amy Dennis was born on December 24, 1875 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married William Silas Bailey on December 25, 1897 in Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan. Will and Amy had a son and a daughter. Amy died on June 15, 1968 in or near Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan.
- Hannah Dennis was born on October 13, 1878 in Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married Kelso George Blackford in Hillsdale, Hillsdale County, Michigan on October 28, 1908. I’m guessing that her sister Idell didn’t attend the wedding because Idell gave birth to my grandmother, Marie Fisher that same day. Kelly and Hannah had four sons and two daughters. Hannah died on June 26, 1951 in either Marion, Hancock County, Ohio or Knox County, Ohio.
- Charlotte Dennis was born on November 25, 1880 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married Olla Leroy Moyer on April 29, 1903 in Sandusky County, Ohio. Ollie and Lottie had five sons and four daughters. Lottie died on September 16, 1978 at Spring Arbor, Jackson County, Michigan.
- Clara May Dennis was born on April 19, 1883 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married Charles Lesley Schoonover on September 30, 1899 at Morenci, Lenawee County, Michigan. Charles and Clara had three sons and a daughter. Clara died in 1957, probably in Colorado where she lived in 1940 and where she was buried.
- Florence Idell Dennis, my great-grandmother, was born on December 23, 1885 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She married Clyde Myron Fisher on December 23, 1903 in Jasper Township, Lenawee County, Michigan. Clyde and Idell had three sons and two daughters. Idell died December 1, 1934 in Lansing, Ingham County, Michigan.
- Anna Lucille Dennis was born on March 31, 1888 or 1889 in Ransom Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. She died on August 3, 1953 in Findlay, Hancock County, Ohio.
- Arthur John Dennis was born on September 12, 1891 in Michigan. He married Josie Charlotte Wilkinson on October 7, 1914 in Stillwater, Montana. Arthur and Josie had one son and two daughters. A. J., as he was apparently known, died on October 9, 1957 in Twin Falls, Twin Falls County, Idaho.
- Grace Ellen Dennis, whose name might have been Ellen Grace, was born on April 16, 1894 in Michigan. She married Charles Dewey Abell on June 22, 1914 in Monroe, Monroe County, Michigan. Charles and Grace had six sons and one daughter. Grace died on July 1, 1988 in Findlay, Hancock County, Ohio.
Rachel Dennis’s daughters passed her mitochondrial DNA to their children and on through their daughters’ daughters.
John and Rachel Dennis divorced on June 21, 1915 and had apparently lived apart for some time. Rachel Dennis, of Hillsdale, Michigan, was ordained as a Minister of the Gospel by the Assembly of God at The Gospel School in Findlay, Ohio on June 16, 1930. Rachel died on April 11, 1937 in Medina Township, Lenawee County, Michigan.
Meeting new cousins
Mom, Dee and I recently met maternal family cousins that I learned of after testing DNA with 23andMe. Almost as soon as my results were posted, Janet McCall contacted me to share DNA segment information and to ask about family lines. We quickly found our common ancestry in John and Rachel Dennis. Janet and her sister Diane, who are very interested in family history and genealogy, came out of their way to see us. Their visit was a real blessing for Mom, Dee and me.
Idell Dennis was Mom’s grandmother and Grace Dennis was Diane and Janet’s grandmother. Because Janet’s and Diane’s mother and Mom’s mother were first cousins, Mom is their second cousin. Janet and Diane are my second cousins once removed. While they were here, we shared some of the information we have about our ancestors. Mom enjoyed showing Diane and Janet a quilt that was made by Amy Dennis Bailey, Idell’s and Grace’s oldest sister.
What about our common DNA with Diane and Janet? Not only do Mom and I share quite a bit of our autosomal DNA with the McCalls, we carry the same mitochondrial DNA, passed down through Ann Borton, Amy Clifton, and Rachel Powell. That DNA represents an unbroken line of female ancestors reaching far back in time. My siblings have that same mitochondrial DNA, as does my sister’s niece.
Dee’s maternal ancestry
For a number of reasons, my wife’s ancestors are harder to track down than many of mine. Her maternal line is, of course, a bit of a challenge. When I met Dee her close family consisted of her mother and her grandmother living in eastern European ethnic suburbs of Chicago. Dee’s grandmother grew up in a household where Czech was spoken.
Dee’s mother, Dorothy Lorraine Dlouhy, was born on December 30, 1922 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. She married Louis Peter Van Zandt on October 16, 1943 in Cicero, Cook County, Illinois. Louis and Dorothy had one child, Dedra Van Zandt. Dee’s parents divorced on Jan 4, 1960 in Cook County, Illinois. Dorothy died on August 22, 2012 in Greenville, Montcalm County, Michigan.
Dorothy’s mother, Rose Karel, was born on April 3, 1902 in Chicago. She married Joseph Dlouhy on December 3, 1921 at her parents’ home in Chicago. Dorothy was their only child. Rose died on August 28, 1996 in Cicero.
Rose’s mother, Frantiska Macak, was apparently born around 1860 in Bohemia, which was then part of the Austrian Empire. One of Frances’s granddaughters, Marie Bouquet Cook, recorded her place of birth as Praha (Prague) on a family chart she drew in the late 1970s. Frances married Anton Karel in 1880, probably shortly before they sailed for America.
Anton and Frances had at least seven sons and five daughters:
- James Karel was born around 1881 and died young.
- Louis Karel was born on September 10, 1884 in Illinois. Louis married Julia O’Connor on June 28, 1905 in Cook County, Illinois. Louis and Julia had one son, who died young, and one daughter. Louis died on January 7, 1931 in Cook County, Illinois.
- Mary Karel was born on March 8, 1885 in Illinois. Mollie, as she was known, married John Edward Bouquet on August 27, 1908 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. John and Mollie had one son and two daughters. Mollie died on December 16, 1980 in Homewood, Cook County, Illinois.
- Ruzena Karel was born on January 4, 1887 and died young.
- Anna Karel was born on September 28, 1888 in Illinois. Anna married Antonin Vyzral on August 27, 1910 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Antonin and Anna had two sons and two daughters. Anna married George Edward Metzger on March 28, 1941 in Rochester, Fulton County, Indiana. Anna died on October 29, 1976 in Rochester.
- Anton Karel was born on August 16, 1890 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. He died on October 13, 1895 in Cook County, Illinois.
- Emily Karel was born on March 26, 1892 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Emma, as she was known, married George Edward Metzger on February 29, 1932 in Fulton County, Indiana. Emma died on September 25, 1941 in Richland Township, Fulton County, Indiana.
- Edward Karel was born on March 29, 1894 in Cook County, Illinois. He married Jane Scott about 1927. Edward died in 1959 and was buried in Dekorra, Columbia County, Wisconsin.
- Frank Karel was born on August 16, 1895 in Cook County, Illinois. He married Anna Kubal on December 14, 1914 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Frank and Anna had three sons. Frank died on October 18, 1932 in Proviso Township, Cook County, Illinois.
- Anton Karel was born on November 21, 1898 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. He married Julia Vetrovec on July 11, 1923 in Cook County, Illinois, Tony and Julia had one son. Tony married Genevieve Tanner on September 16, 1964 in Itasca County, Minnesota. Tony died on October 27, 1987 at Deer River, Itasca County, Minnesota.
- Rose Karel was born on April 3, 1902 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. She married Joseph Dlouhy on Dec 3, 1921 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Joe and Rose had one daughter. Rose died on August 28, 1996 in Cicero, Cook County, Illinois.
- James Karel was born about 1904 in Illinois. He married Mildred Riedl on September 14, 1943 in Cook County, Illinois. James and Mildred had one daughter. James, or Uncle Jimmy as I remember him, died on April 15, 1988 in Fairfax, Virginia.
Frances Karel died on May 9, 1943, which was Mother’s Day. Frances’s son Edward, who provided personal information for his mother’s death certificate, reported her date of birth as October 28, 1868. While I remember some family talk of a fuss about Anton leaving the old country with the family servant, this would have made Frances barely twelve years old on arrival in New York on November 12, 1880. Rose told me that she thought her mother had worked for her father’s parents.
The mitochondrial DNA that Frantiska Macak inherited from her unknown line of mothers has been passed in my family through Rose Karel and Dorothy Dlouhy to my wife Dee and our son and daughter who carry it today.
Our heritage is given to us in genetic blueprints and in the rich experience of history from the many branches of our family trees. Yet there is something unique about our all-male and all-female lineages. Our mothers in every family line have given birth to each new generation. They have cared for and shaped their children and passed on their own inheritance of life as they knew how. We are indebted to them, perhaps uniquely in our unbroken female connection to time beyond memory.