Using DNA When Records and Documents are Missing
Although I've been interested in the contributions DNA testing has made to history and genealogy ever since DNA testing proved that Sally Hemmings' descendents were related to Thomas Jefferson, I didn't think it was something I'd ever do myself until last fall when I was contacted through Ancestry.com by someone else researching the Monheit family. That is because my family's relationship to the Monheits bears some similarity to the relationship between the Hemmings and the Jeffersons. Let me back up and share some of my great-grandmother's story. In this case truth may not be stranger than fiction, but certainly just as exciting.
My great-grandmother, Edith Mae Menges Morris was born on November 19, 1893, as family tradition says, in a tent near Enid, Oklahoma. For those who know their Great Plains history, this was about two months after the Cherokee Strip land rush, the last Oklahoma land rush. Edith's mother, Anna Maria Menges Aures, was a 36-year old divorcee and the mother of a baby boy who had died at one-month old, who apparently had an affair with a married man. No surprise she was looking for a place to start over. Family tradition says Anna Maria was accompanied by her best friend, Sarah Jane "Jennie" Bickel Wohlhieter. A family in Enid wanted to adopt Edith, but when Anna Maria wrote home to Indiana to ask her mother what she should do, her mother told her to bring the baby home. Thus, Edith grew up in Bristol, Indiana surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins. There is very little documentation supporting the story of Edith's birth and Anna Maria's brief stay in Oklahoma. It has been accepted because Edith believed everything her mother told her, and Edith's daughters and grandchildren have chosen to believe what she told them. (And if you think this story is wild, I haven't even introduced you to Edith's step-father, Fred Warner yet. But that will have to wait for a future post.)
At one point Edith attempted to obtain a copy of her birth certificate. Oklahoma authorities told her no birth certificates were recorded at the time of her birth because it was as yet an unorganized territory. Tradition says Anna Maria attempted to stake a claim, but her claim was jumped. No official records can be found through the Bureau of Land Management's database. However, a photocopy of a homestead application signed by Anna Maria Aures mysteriously turned up in my grandmother's collection of family papers. Since it is a photocopy, it has to be of modern vintage, but the location of the original remains unknown. Much of my grandmother's Menges genealogy was shared with her by her cousin Howard Menges, now deceased, so my assumption is that he turned this up somewhere. I wish I could ask him about it. And then there is Edith's marriage licence application, a legal document in which she names her birth father, David Monheit, and lists his occupation as "traveling salesman."
So with a story based on oral history, the idea of having scientific proof through DNA was intriguing, if seemingly unrealistic. The problem was finding a confirmed relative of Monheit's who was also willing to participate in a DNA test. So it was very exciting when a Monheit cousin made the first overture to me and both she and her brother had already participated in Ancestry.com's DNA database. With the encouragement of my friend Judi Cook, a volunteer with the Lincoln Lancaster County Genealogical Society who also answered my many questions about DNA testing, I took the plunge.
Awaiting the results was somewhat nerve wracking. I wanted it to prove my relationship to the Monheits, but what if it didn't? I needn't have worried. When the results came in, they showed a high confidence match with my contact and her brother (estimated at 5th-8th cousin and 4th-6th cousin respectively). Our actual relationship is 4th cousins once removed.
The only disappointing part of this story is that my Monheit cousins are actually more distantly related to David Solomon Monheit and know even less about him than my family does. From records we've gleaned tantalizing bits of information about Monheit which beg the fuller story. My great-grandmother's description of him as a "traveling salesman" appears to be accurate. Monheit shows up in newspapers in a number of locations from Ohio to Iowa to Texas advertising services as an optician or "spectacle maker." He was born in Tarnow, Poland in 1867 and immigrated to the United States around 1890 where he married Fanny Hennig in New York City in 1892. The newlyweds settled in Toledo, Ohio which remained Monheit's permanent residence. At the time of his affair with Anna Maria, Fanny was already pregnant with their son Phillip who was born in April of 1893, seven months before Edith. Apparently Anna Maria sent the Monheits a baby gift as my grandmother has a letter Monheit sent thanking her for the gift.
The most tantalizing part of the story though is two brief references in Iowa newspapers. In Kalona, Iowa in 1896 there is a notice which reads, "D.S. Monheit Vs. Fanny Monheit, divorce, default." Two years later a Waverly, Iowa newspaper reports that Monheit married a widow, Mrs. May Elizabeth Schlun née Blossom. But when Schlun died in 1930 she was buried as May E. Schlun. And Monheit continues to be listed has head of household in Toledo with his wife Fanny and son Phillip. Given these strange newspapers notices for Monheit in Iowa and the record of his extensive travel, one wonders if there are other unknown cousins somewhere. And what did his legitimate family know about his affairs?
Before readers start thinking too badly of Monheit, remember that Anna Maria's adult life included a lot of mistakes where men were concerned. She was beautiful and a flirt (according to her daughter), and by the time Monheit met her she was probably already a somewhat pathetic figure. As a widow, May Schlun may have been another hard luck case. Apparently Monheit was a rather warmhearted person who might have been quite sympathetic to tragic women.
My mother, aunt, and their cousins were just as interested in the results of my DNA test as I was myself. But when we shared the information with my grandmother, her response, with a shrug of the shoulder, was, "I already knew that." Utter confidence in her mother's story. But now with DNA evidence, more of this story can be passed to future generations with confidence and not fall into the realm of family mythology.