Message left in a family painting solves a family mystery

A painting in my grandparents’ living room will never leave my memory. As a child, I wondered why my grandparents had such a huge painting of a Russian religious monument along the river that runs through Kiev.

My mom only could tell me that my grandfather paid an artist to duplicate a postcard he kept from his birthplace. I wish he could have told me which church his parents had him baptized.

Today, I learned a clue was in that painting. Last week, I started to get anxious again to find my grandfather’s baptism record. My researcher Nikita Kovalchuk suggested looking at records from a church named St. Vladimir near the street where my grandfather lived before the war.

I thought to myself what is the chance that the painting of St. Volodymyr (also a name for Vladimir) and that my uncle being named Vladimir were connected to the church where my grandfather was baptized.

Then, this afternoon I got an e-mail message from Nikita that he found a record. I was thinking he found a random person carrying my grandfather’s surname but he really found my grandfather’s baptism record.

Finally, the mystery is closed thanks to seeing that the name Vladimir had an importance to my grandfather. The biggest surprise in the baptism record was my grandfather’s birth date.

Every document I have on my grandfather has his birth date as March 21. My mother never heard of her father’s birthday being another day. So it came to be a surprise that the baptism record lists his birth date as March 8.

Then I realized that maybe my grandfather acknowledged the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. This website confirmed that my grandfather’s birth date on his immigration records is his adjusted birth date.

Another surprise in the baptism record is that my great-grandparents had a peasant woman from their birth village serve as the godmother. Why would a peasant travel almost 240 miles to a baptism unless she was a relative?

My researcher in Russia’s Kursk Region didn’t pickup this surname for one of my direct ancestors from these great-grandparents. Then I looked at the transcribed church records for these great-grandparents and the peasant’s surname is noticed several times for godparents of both great-grandparents’ relatives. My great-grandparents’ marriage also was witnessed by a man with the same surname.

This baptism record may have confirmed that one of my direct ancestors carries this surname. Maybe this simple record has opened the door for even more research in Kursk Region. It is amazing what determination to find one record will return as a gift. shakes off the fluff in my DNA matches

I was giggling when I heard would readjust its criteria for determining DNA matches. The announcement came that some people would lose a lot of their matches. must have been talking about me.  I had close to 5,000 matches yesterday.  Today, (let’s all giggle together) I have 387 matches. Do the math and you’ll see I have lost 92 percent of my “matches”.

I am not surprised. After all,’s database only includes Americans.  It doesn’t sell DNA tests abroad. I am pretty unique as an American.

My parents were born in Russia and Ukraine and all of my great-grandparents were born in Russia. One great-grandmother was born in Russia, where it is now eastern Poland, but her roots were German from current day Poland.

I hardly fit the profile of a typical Ancestry DNA customer. I can easily guess that most customers have ancestry from western Europe and British Isles.

So surprise, surprise I don’t have any matches closer than 5th to 8th cousins. I have 7 matches with high confidence, 93 matches with good confidence and 287 matches with moderate confidence to people predicted as my 5th to 8th cousins.

Before Ancestry DNA’s readjustments in making matches more accurate, I had mostly 5th to 8th cousin matches with low and very low confidence levels. I also had so many more “matches” to people with Russian and Ukrainian ancestry.

My 100 matches to people with Russian and Ukrainian ancestry has been knocked down to 29 matches to those with Russian ancestors and 12 matches to people with Ukrainian ancestors.

I should be happy to have almost 400 matches but then I took a closer look at my matches’ trees- 66 matches have locked their trees, 94 matches haven’t linked their accounts to trees and 49 matches have trees with less than 50 people. knows many of its customers are annoyed with a noticeable number of DNA members not posting trees or having locked trees. It has introduced a new tool.

Straight from’s website: “DNA Circles are the latest way to discover who you’re related to—even if you aren’t DNA matches. Each DNA Circle you’re part of is based on one of your direct-line ancestors. It will include everyone who has that ancestor in their family tree and has DNA evidence that links them to you or someone else in the circle. In other words, a circle includes all the identified genetic descendants of a particular person. It’s a great way to discover cousins you never knew you had.”

We’ll see if this will have an impact on making closed off customers to share their trees.

After these changes to Ancestry DNA, I am happy I got the Ancestry DNA test for free three years ago as part of the beta group. I have gained nothing from the Ancestry DNA test.

I still believe it is worthwhile to get the test if you are looking for American cousins or your Russian or Ukrainian relatives came to the USA no later than the early 1900s. I don’t have much hope in this test for people such as me who are descendants of people who came to America during World War II and the 1950s and have family mostly abroad.

Anyone looking for Russian and Ukrainian cousins whose family never left their homeland or immigrated to other European countries, Australia, Canada and USA should try the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA. If only sold its DNA test abroad, the potential for people such as me would grow daily like a weed in a rain forest.

Related post:
A Russian-American’s insider view of the Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder Test

Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!

One of the biggest mistakes in genealogy is rushing to the next step without doing all your research. Too many times, I hear people rushing into finding their family’s village well before their research is done.

Rush into this major step, you could feel like a horse led into an empty barn at feeding time.

Too many people assume when they have family stories and a few documents, that will be enough to start research in the family village.

In genealogy, you can’t research too much, especially with the factors involved when dealing with immigrants. Not many immigrants understood immigration officials when they arrived in their new homeland. Maybe some immigrants understood the language of their new country but officials could have misunderstood them or been confused by the stress of processing immigrants.

Then, immigrants had to document their lives in their new homeland on documents in a new language. Sometimes it wasn’t easy or cheap to find help in properly filling out the forms.

I have different birthplaces and birth dates for some relatives. Luckily, I’ve done my research to confirm those details. In some cases, I spent money and time in researching records in the wrong place.

There is nothing like being annoyed at yourself that you should have known better or some know-it-all relative saying with a big grin,  “Boy, you really screwed up. Hope it didn’t cost you too much money.”

So here’s how you can earn some bragging rights for uncovering the mysterious family village. Follow these suggestions and you can restart or start your search with more confidence and success.

1. Interview the oldest relatives in your family. If relatives say, “I don’t know much.” Then say, “Please tell me what you remember.” Even if relatives can’t remember very specific details, try getting details such as closeness to another country’s border, big city or another region. Someone else could help you knock down the not-so-specific details to more concise information.

2. Learn about the family’s religion, class and profession. Not all Russians and Ukrainians are Orthodox or Jewish. The other religions are Old Believers, Russian Baptist, Catholic and Lutherans (mainly Germans living in the Russian Empire).

2. Get all possible immigration documents. Here are the records you should consider obtaining if your relatives came to the USA: petition for naturalization, application for immigration visa and alien registration, ship passenger record, declaration of intention for naturalization and Alien Case File.

3. If your family came to the USA in the early 1900s to 1950, I highly suggest paying $20 for an index search request at to see which immigration records are available on your family.

4. If your family was held in German concentration camps or labor camps during World War II, make a free search request with International Tracing Service.

5. If your family escaped the Soviet Union during World War II by using German ancestry to relocate to Germany, search for your family here under data category “war records”. This database will tell you whether there are Einwanderungszentralstelle files (goldmine for genealogy research) on your relatives that you can obtain at U.S. national archives in College Park, Maryland.

6. If your relatives married, served in the military or died outside of the Russian Empire or USSR, I would recommend obtaining their marriage, military and death records. Those records could have the family village.

Once you have attempted to collect this information, it is time to research the family village. It is important to remember that just like many  other countries, too many names of towns and villages duplicate in Russia and Ukraine and some names for towns and villages change over time.

If you are not familiar with Russian or Ukrainian, use Google Translate to translate keywords for search engines. Information in Russian or Ukrainian are likely to be more bountiful than English.

This all seems a bit much for one piece of information, but the cost for researching family in Russia and Ukraine can run pricey. Investing hope and money on the right village will have great returns.

Interesting results with making myself a twin on Family Tree DNA

Out of curiosity, I decided to transfer my DNA autosomal data to Family Tree DNA. That is nothing unusual until you know I already took the  Family Tree DNA Family Finder test.

I read on the forum for 23andme, another DNA genealogy testing company, about a guy who submitted two tests of himself and found different results. So I decided for $39 to give this experiment a try. I don’t think Family Tree DNA wants many people duplicating themselves in its database.

When I  saw my free 20 matches, I recognized all the matches from my current Family Tree DNA Family Finder test. The information given for each match was the first initial and last name, estimated relationship and amount of shared DNA data. If there were a new person in the matches, I wouldn’t be able to contact them. The e-mail addresses are not provided with the free 20 matches.

I got lured into paying $39 for the full transfer because I was promised “more than 101 matches” would be unlocked. That would mean that I would have 121 matches from my twin account. My other account has 91 matches.

The joke was on me when I finally got all my matches 48 hours later. My twin account only picked up nine more matches, not the 30 I was expecting. All of my new matches are 5th-remote cousins and have Russian and other eastern European ancestry.

One surprising theme among the duplicate matches is that those matches were slightly weaker than from my original Family Finder test. I somehow had slightly fewer DNA chromosomes in common with my mother, aunt, uncle and my other duplicate matches.

I am still annoyed that I got much fewer matches than promised, but maybe this duplicate account will pick up some great matches as time goes on. Anyone who hasn’t done the Family Finder Test but has tested through 23andme and AncestryDNA should at least try the free transfer to see the first 20 matches.

Current Family Tree DNA customers could try transferring their DNA data from 23andme and AncestryDNA for the curiosity. At $39, I think it is still worth the price for my small number of new DNA matches. The regular transfer fee of $69 is not what I’m willing to give up for a few more matches.