Sometimes, our family history has loose ends – blind alleys, unsolved mysteries. Perhaps you took advantage of the post Thanksgiving “Black Friday” sales which offer DNA tests to reveal our hidden secrets – or at least that appears to be the appeal for many. An easy way to find out where we are from, and what our ancestors were like. Sometimes, it is easy – but not always.
The “matches” that flood our email for tiny percentages of DNA connections are dependent on so many moving pieces – who submits a test, the “odds” of shared segments, and how each testing company samples from your own submissions. The databases are constantly changing; the “ethnicity estimates” are only as good as the data that the company uses which can be misleading. Think about it – even your “full” sibling – a brother or sister from the same two parents – will never have more than 50% shared DNA “markers”, much likely less – and with every generation, the percentage declines.
When it comes to researching my own heritage, I was fortunate, in a way – my father had written a letter to my brother and I with his notes on various family members. Dated April 16, 1965, shortly after my parent’s divorce, and during a period that he was facing many uncertainties, it offered some facts on his mother and father’s heritages, with scribbled notes and typos – but it was at least a jumping off point for my journey. Another page appears to be a request for further information from perhaps a distant family member; and, as I would learn in time, it was not entirely factual. As you too may discover in digging into your ancestry, the “family lore” is often vague, rife with errors and misspellings, and incomplete or shaded by time.
Because I grew up so isolated from most of my family – and because I was not in a home where there was a lot of visits from friends or neighbors – when I started to dig through boxes and found the diaries and letters, I felt like I was discovering family I never knew. In time, my new “family” members became more real, with each new revelation, or old photo identified. On my Mom’s side, there was a lot of documentation – less on my Dad’s. I had known his parents only when very young – but now, as an adult, I found gaining an understanding of their lives to be very meaningful, and I wanted to learn more. I sought out cousins, and using websites like Ancestry, found distant family on both sides around the world.
But one branch of the family remained a mystery – the parents of my paternal great grandmother. My father’s great grandmother, Ramona Pereida had married my great grandfather – alternately referred to as James Grey, or Jim Grey, or James Gray in various documents; in fact, on her death certificate, even her husband misspelled her maiden name as “Perryda”. They had met in southern Mexico when he was working on (no music, please) the railroad – he had been born James Gronso Jr., but changed his name when he left his parents (purportedly after fathering a child out of wedlock) to seek his fortune in the expanding west. I had been able to find his family’s descendants – they were thrilled to learn what had happened to him, lost to time – but in Arizona territory, and Mexico itself, records of family were not as extensive in the late 1800’s, and I had little to go on.
My father’s letter described Ramona’s parents briefly; Lorenzo, her father, “lived in Nogales; his father or grandfather came from Spain and was executed during the reign of Maximilian”. Her mother was “Ligrada Corrella De Pierada”; they had “married in Hermosillo Mexico”, and supposedly had 13 children, practiced medicine, but “was not a doctor”. Other “facts” about siblings and history were scant – and in time, I realized, erroneous. But I was fascinated with the old pictures of Jim Grey on a desert landscape, and his wife and two older daughters, Dora and Bela. I never was able to talk with my grandmother Bela about her knowledge; she passed when I was quite young. But, I am sure some if not all of the notes my Dad made were from her memory.
Fortunately, in time – thank you Ancestry and the Internet – I found a Pereida relative (and the correct spelling!) and through him, a distant cousin – descendants of siblings of James’ wife, Ramona. Like many Hispanic families, they had named children after parents – and so, there were records for a Lorenzo Pereida in Arizona – just not “mine”. Together, we visited Nogales, and found the gravesite of his wife, Librada (not Ligrada) – or, “Liberty” – and other members, neglected in a long forgotten plot. And, another cousin – descended from my grandmother’s sister Dora – had a video recording of the youngest sister, Aunt Monie – in which she made a startling claim that Lorenzo had come to San Francisco from not Spain, but Portugal; returned there, and then emigrated to Mexico where he met Librada and married her.
So many questions – where did this Lorenzo come from? Was he indeed somehow a practitioner of medicine, and did he cross the ocean multiple times? Had he emigrated to San Francisco prior to the gold rush (I would love that, as it would make me eligible for some rather distinguished associations here!), and if so, why did he go back? What if any was the family connection to Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, killed in 1867? My hope was that if I could find even more living descendants of Ramona’s supposedly dozen siblings, they could provide some answers. And, yes, secretly, I harbored a hope that there would be a chest of rubies and gold that was being held for my share of the family (well, one must dream, sometimes!)
As of today – I don’t have those answers. The DNA tests that I purchased through 23 and me, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA and My Heritage sometimes provide “connections” that seem promising – I write, but there have been few responses and no real information. I am glad I connected with the cousins that I did find online – we have shared what little we know. I search the archives of the Newspapers.com website occasionally finding Pereida references, sometimes to a sibling, but mostly of dubious shared heritage; there is evidence to suggest that the family name has closer ties to Portugal than Spain, but I have found no contacts there as of today.
There were two “finds” in the past year, courtesy of the indexing and online references provided by the Latter Day Saints FamilySearch.org website. It is free to all; and because their faith tenets emphasize the importance of tracking down family, they devote many resources to indexing and sharing records from around the world. Being “trapped” – oops, sheltering in place – gave me more time to poke around, and I was very excited to finally find a formal record naming Lorenzo Perieda and his wife Librada Corella de Pereida – from July 26, 1887. The civil registry of Nogales recognized that James and his wife, Ramona, brought their 3 children (!) of varying ages to be formally recorded as legitimate offspring (I guess people weren’t in a big rush back then!)
A friend in LA and his friend who was more familiar with “traditional” Spanish handwriting and language helped translate the wording – which revealed that by that point, Lorenzo was deceased. And just last week my sister in law helped me “walk through” a marriage record of “Santiago” Grey and Librada Pereida, in Spanish of course, from the civil registration records of Sonora Mexico. It states, among much “legalese” (yes, even back then) that they wed in her mother’s Guaymas home on February 6, 1882, with witnesses present – including Librada. But there is no mention of Lorenzo. From the Nogales gravesite and other records, we know that his wife, Librada, passed in 1908; my father’s letter only mentioned that Lorenzo died in Ures, Mexico – whether his grave exists today, I do not know.
Why does any of this matter? I cannot answer that, other than a sense in my heart. Perhaps it is because I, as a childless man, know the probability that I will be forgotten in time; I would like to preserve the memories of Lorenzo, his family and more relatives for my nieces and nephews, and their children – hoping that they will find some value, as I have, in understanding what our forebears went through for us to have our lives here today. I had this interest long before Pixar’s “Coco” used the Day of the Dead to urge us to “remember me” for our lost relatives; I can almost relive sitting in my mother’s bedroom, going through boxes, and the sense of wonder I had at the old pictures and letters, and the lives of those who came before. I wanted so desperately to have a sense of belonging as a child; to have the family that my schoolmates talked about; perhaps in a sense I am still trying to rebuild what was lost. And, maybe, in a way, I will save a little bit of me for those who remain after I am gone – just as those who wrote the letters, took the photos, and saved the family Bibles did from decades past.
I would love, one day, to visit the point where Lorenzo began his own journey – to know why he made the life changing choice to board a ship and cross an ocean, perhaps more than once, and how he came to Hermosillo, and where Librada came from, and her parents. The DNA tests might one day provide, if not a connection, a clue or a confirmation – or it might just be luck. But I do think I will stand there, and be in awe again at the mysteriously woven tapestry of my life – all our lives. I hope my own digging inspires some of you to consider what you can do to preserve your stories, your ancestors, for the future generations; their voices speak to us, their wisdom and their sacrifices, their love and their hopes. We may not seem them clearly – but they are worth remembering and honoring, and from that, carrying forward in our own lives. I wish you well in your quests.
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