Until recent years, the ancestry research toolbox was an academic's briefcase. But in the early 21st century, DNA was added to the box, changing genealogical research for generations to come.
This is Hester Freeman and Charles Meehan from family lore to DNA reality.
Pictured on the right are the Freeman sisters. My grandmother, Hester, is standing. Their parents were Robert Freeman and Catherine Anderson.
Catherine Anderson and her sisters, Mary and Bathemia, were the daughters of Livas (Joseph) Anderson and Mary. We do not know her maiden name.
ANDERSON FAMILY LORE
Lore passed through the families of Mary Anderson Smith and Catherine Anderson Freeman tells of a mother of European descent. Ava Speese Day recorded the lore in her research notes in 1977 (picture inset). Without a written record or pictures, the story of Mary, the wife of Livas, having European roots, remained a mystery.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) passes unchanged from mothers to their children. Their daughters pass it on to the next generation. mtDNA can trace a maternal line back thousands of years to the origins of its ancient group of people.
Hester's mtDNA, courtesy of Catherine Anderson, was passed to her daughters, Annie, Rose, and Gertie, who passed it to their children. Seven direct maternal line children of the sisters have done DNA testing.
The mtDNA for all of them is from haplogroup K1c1. Haplogroup K1c1 is associated with European populations, most often found in Poland, Hungary, France, Ukraine, and other areas of Europe. While this does not confirm that Hester's grandmother is entirely European, it does tell us that her maternal origins are European.
FREEMAN FAMILY LORE
The Freeman family lore follows Hester's father, Robert, born in Canada in 1819. Stories of his Indigenous ancestry have followed the Freeman offspring. I was familiar with the long-documented Native American heritage my mother's family shared. My father's Freeman connection to that ancestry was little more than a myth.
When my 23andMe DNA test results were processed several years ago, one tool they use breaks down a person's DNA by chromosome. The twenty-three chromosomes are further broken into two strands, one representing each parent. There is no indication which strand represents which parent.
My strands do indicate Indigenous DNA on both maternal and paternal lines. Perhaps the stories about Robert Freeman's ancestry are true. Much more research is needed, but the Anderson-Freeman lore appears to be based on fact.
Picture Inset: The document is from a more extensive work of notes prepared by Ava Speese Day.
CHARLES MEEHAN WAS IRISH
Everyone knew Charles was Irish. He had an Irish surname. The woman who raised him (his mother?) was Irish. He often spoke an Irish dialect to his grandchildren. He said his mother was born in County Fermanagh in 1823, and his father was from County Tipperary. And everything written about his homesteading days in Nebraska confirms he was Irish.
Image: My dad, Bill Meehan, recorded information about his paternal grandparents on this tiny scrap of paper in 1949. Everyone believed Charles was the child of Irish immigrants.
In those times … Cousin Ava Speese Day said our Grandpa Meehan always had a different Irish name for each grandkid.
In those times … a visit to Aunt Gertie Meehan Brown's house was not complete until we sang O' Danny Boy.
In those times ... my dad, Bill Meehan, had maps of Ireland with the Meehan name highlighted along with County Tipperary (reported birthplace of Robert Meehan) and County Fermanagh (said birthplace of Hannah Leonard Meehan Hayden).
In those times … Aunt Rose Meehan Speese ensured the little ones knew of their Irish heritage. For my sixth birthday, she sent a dime wrapped in paper imprinted with trefoil, Irish knots, and clover (pictured).
Irish parents, Irish name, Irish dialect ...... Charles was Irish.
Except — he wasn't.
After exhausting any hope of finding a paper trail to Grandpa Charles’s parents, I eagerly embraced DNA testing. I tested with every major DNA company and discovered no Meehan family connection — none, not even the smallest amount of shared Meehan DNA from Irish soil.
Several DNA tests came back with almost no Irish DNA and fewer Irish DNA matches; I was a true DNA novice when the first tests came back, so I hired two genealogists specializing in DNA. Independently, they concluded that Charles Henry Meehan was not Irish.
A breakthrough came in 2019 when a match to a 98-year-old man came up. The amount of DNA we shared (205 cM) proved an indisputable relationship. His match to me was a link to many other matches that made no sense.
I would never find my Meehan family in Ireland because Charles’s biological family was from Germany, of German and Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Grandpa Charles Meehan and his descendants were Irish no more.
Using DNA as a genealogical research tool has taken me down a path I never imagined, revealing a fantastic genetic and family history. The trail led to an almost 165-year-old secret. The secret was so well-kept that several generations passed without suspecting it.
Charles’s surname was Meehan, though how he came by the name is unknown. His genetics tie him to several German and Jewish families with deep roots in Bavaria, Germany. Members of those families immigrated to the United States in the early to mid-1800s, and several were part of the wealthy merchant community of Detroit, Michigan, Charles’s birthplace.
DNA ties Charles Henry Meehan to the Heavenrich/Lutz/Beck families of Jewish and German descent. The only accurate part of his birth story is his Detroit birth.
DNA uncovered a well-crafted and executed family secret hidden for over 150 years.
"What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society." (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Chapter 1)
Charles Henry Meehan's story could have been a Dickens novel. It includes a brief affair between society elites, a childless Irish woman and a free person of color willing to hide a child; an inconspicuous border crossing; a change of names and ethnicities; a small boy who learned to blend in with his peers despite their glaring dissimilarities; the child's self-made happily-ever-after; and modern DNA testing.
In the first half of the Victorian era, a child born without the benefit of married parents was his mother's shame and his father's secret. At his birth, his mother likely felt the weight of condescending glares from those who considered her apparent actions and the clear result of those actions an untenable shame. His father may have scoffed at the idea that he fathered the child.
Many children born in the mid-1800s to unwed parents became foundlings, living in orphanages or asylums. Author Ruth Paley says in her book My Ancestor Was a Bastard that 19th-century criminal court records show babies made up about half of all murder victims. Fortunately for Charles and his descendants, he had a different future.
Charles was born in Detroit on January 7, 1856. He was likely with his mother at least five or six weeks after his birth. A paternity suit notice was published in a Detroit newspaper on February 26, 1856, naming a family member with whom I share DNA. The mother or her family likely sued to wrest funds for the child's care or perhaps to embarrass a man or family who may have scoffed at her claims. I have found no record of the case's outcome.
Why did Charles's mother sue if she didn't plan to keep her child? Perhaps raising a child by herself was her first thought, but she abandoned the idea after realizing the enormity of her situation. Maybe the suit didn't yield enough income to care for a child, or, just perhaps, there was never a thought of keeping the child, only of drawing attention to the father. Whatever the purpose of the suit may have been, his biological parents abandoned him with no apparent expectation that he would ever be associated with his birth family.
Was he in an orphanage, or was someone paid to assume his care? Was that person Hannah Leonard, nee Fee? Canadian census and marriage records identify Hannah Leonard as Irish. Charles spoke Irish endearments to his grandchildren, words presumably learned from Hannah. She is identified in records as Charles's mother, but she could not be his biological mother if she were Irish.
The deception employed to hide Charles's paternity was clever. His identity was further obscured when Hannah married Samuel Hayden, a man of African descent from Kentucky. Samuel purchased land in Ontario's Elgin Settlement, land set aside for those escaping enslavement. Charles recognized Samuel as his stepfather.
The subterfuge successfully obliterated any link to Charles's biological family. One hundred and sixty-five years later, DNA uncovered the long-hidden secret.
 Illegitimacy: the shameful secret, Family history, The Guardian, Sat April 14, 2007. Ruth Paley's book My Ancestor Was a Bastard (Society of Genealogists, Enterprises Ltd (Dec 2004).
Those Audacious Meehans
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