Ancestry, DNA Testing, Genetic Genealogy

The Search for Ernest Watts – Solving a WWII Mystery using Ancestry DNA

Today’s blog post is a little different.  I thought it would be interesting to review a successful search, as there may be people looking at DNA Kits in the Black Friday sales and wondering if these tests really can solve family mysteries.  Hopefully this story, with its happy (and slightly unusual) ending, shows what can be achieved by combining DNA and traditional family history research. 

With grateful thanks to Craig and Maureen for allowing me to share their story

The Search for Ernest Watts - Solving a WWII Mystery using Ancestry DNA

Maureen was born in England towards the end of WWII.  Growing up she discovered that her Father was an American GI by the name of Ernest Watts – a blonde-haired serviceman who drove a Jeep. 

“War Babes” (children born to American servicemen whilst they are serving overseas) have the right to access their Father’s military records.  However, as Maureen discovered, working with just a name was almost impossible and the available records did not help identify her Father.

Ancestry DNA Results

I started helping Maureen’s son, Craig, with Maureen’s Ancestry DNA results in April 2017.   At the start of our search, Maureen had about 650 matches in the 4th cousin/closer categories.  People with many generations of American ancestors often have thousands of DNA cousins, but UK testers typically have only a couple of hundred matches.  The high number of matches alone was a good sign that Maureen did indeed have an American Father.

A Private/Unsearchable Tree

Craig had already started a tree and linked it to Maureen’s DNA.  I ensured the tree was private and unsearchable, then we started pulling together the available information.

Maternal or Paternal Matches?

As a first step, we identified as many of Maureen’s maternal relatives as possible, adding a star to each of these people on her match list.  In theory, any “unstarred” matches would be her paternal relatives.

Initial Thoughts

Reviewing the information offered by Maureen’s matches, we found similarities between the trees of her matches.  Many of their families lived in West Virginia, and the same surnames appeared over and over again.  It was clear that we were looking at large families, often with a dozen or so children to each marriage, and that there were several intermarriages between these families.  Plenty of information to work with – in fact, almost too much!

Tree Building

Within a couple of days, I had created a tree that linked together many ancestors from the matches’ trees and was fairly confident that I had identified one set of Maureen’s Great-Grandparents.  I added Maureen as their Great-Granddaughter and overnight the very first Shared Ancestor Hint appeared.  Looking back through our messages at the time, I told Craig “I’ve seen the surname Pritt a few times”.

As seems to be the case with many searches, the most interesting matches either had no family tree, a very small tree, a private tree or were managed by people who offered little information to work with.  It was time to turn detective and build trees on their behalf.

As the branches within Maureen’s tree grew, a picture began emerge as to how the matches and families connected.  One obituary was an absolute gold-mine, enabling us to link together ancestors of several matches – discovering that the deceased man had 84 grandchildren brought home to us how many people we were likely to need to research!

Even more Tree Building

A day later I believed I had identified likely candidates for Maureen’s paternal Grandparents.  I adapted the tree accordingly, then took my dog for a walk, not expecting much to change.  I came back an hour later to find 99 Shared Ancestor Hints – they might only be hints, but that was a very promising sign!

The potential Grandparents had seven sons – two died at a young age, so that left five men who might be Maureen’s Father. 

You might think that with so few men to choose between, the answer would become apparent pretty quickly?  It had taken less than a week to narrow the field to five brothers – it would take another six months to confirm which one was the right man.

Two of the sons seemed too old to have served overseas during WWII (but my own GI Grandfather was older than expected, born in 1901, so I wasn’t going to totally discount them yet).  Two brothers seemed to be the “right” age – and another was only slightly older, so still a possibility.

But where is Ernest?

The name “Ernest Watts” was nowhere to be seen. 

I’ve worked on a few searches where the name we had been given turned out to be completely incorrect.  Sometimes the wrong name was due to a deliberate cover-up, sometimes a misunderstanding, or occasionally we discovered an adoption or misattributed parentage.  Whatever the reason, there was no sign whatsoever of any Watts connection amongst the matches, their trees, or even within the records for the area.

Messages from Matches

Having Shared Ancestor Hints appear when you have a private tree is a mixed blessing.  The fact they exist is a sign that you are heading in the right direction, but they also appear on your matches’ list and, as the matches can’t see your tree, they can become curious…

The Shared Ancestor Hints prompted a few “Who are you, and how are we related?” messages – difficult to answer when the honest answer is along the lines of “I suspect your Mother’s cousin met a girl in England during WWII and their daughter is now looking for him”! 

Craig did an excellent job of communicating with his matches – either pacing things carefully if it was a close match, or gleaning as much information as possible if they were approachable and helpful.  His Facebook friends list grew considerably during this part of the search!

Military Records

We could find enough information on Ancestry to show that at least two of the sons had served in WWII.  By June this was confirmed by the US military records researcher, so Maureen requested further information to establish exactly where they had been based and when.

More (and more) Matches

The matches continued to roll in.  A second cousin in June, followed by another in July, all pointing towards the same families in West Virgina.  It seemed churlish to complain, but they were all confirming what we had already found – we kept hoping for something that offered a different angle to explore!

An Answer at Last?

In August 2017 Maureen received more details about the two men’s WWII service – one had not served in Europe at all, but the other had arrived in Scotland on 10 June 1942.  Research showed that his unit had later been deployed to England.  Surely this must be the right man?

A Moment of Doubt…

By now, we had a vast amount of information about this man’s ancestors, his parents, his siblings and his military record – but very little about him after the war.  More recent records can be difficult to locate, but it seemed very odd that we could find so much information about his siblings’ marriages and children, but nothing about his own family.

Some of the contacts that Craig had made began to stop responding to messages.  Perhaps they were busy, perhaps they had lost interest or felt they had no useful information – or perhaps they felt it was a bit too close to home and they were in danger of revealing a family secret?

Although we were 99% sure that we had found the man we were looking for, there were still a few possibilities that we hadn’t been able to rule out (his older brothers for example).  We were also aware that it would have been very easy to miss something vital, especially given the intermarriages between families in Maureen’s tree and the number of times that children on different branches ended up sharing the same name.

The Final Piece of the Puzzle

Craig was working his magic with his DNA cousins and had managed to get several of them actively involved, discussing possibilities and talking to their older relatives.  And then…

22 October 2017:  A First Cousin category match – over 800 cM

As always, a match that could bring answers is never one that offers a tree!  Thanks to people-search sites and newspaper articles, we managed to work out that the match was a niece of the man we thought was Maureen’s Father.  That would make her a first cousin to Maureen!

Six months after we discovered that Maureen’s Father was likely to be one of seven brothers, we now knew that:

  • Two brothers died in childhood
  • Two brothers were probably too old (in their 40s during WWII)
  • One brother did not serve in England during WWII
  • One brother, the Father of the new cousin match, was Maureen’s Uncle, not her Father
  • Which again led us back to the same man – Tom Pritt.

We went into overdrive trying to find any scrap of information on Tom. 

We got briefly led astray by newspaper articles about a man with a similar name, but fortunately realised it was a coincidence – two men with the same name, in the same area at the same time. 

It would have been so wonderful if we had been able to find information that indicated that Tom had married and had children.  Most importantly, Maureen might have had half-brothers/sisters.  From a DNA perspective, if we had been able to compare Maureen and a half-sister’s DNA results, a full X chromosome match would have been additional evidence that they shared the same Father.

However, no matter how hard we looked, we couldn’t find any useful information about Tom after the war.  Find-a-Grave had a picture of his headstone, but the inscription was purely factual, just a name and dates, no mention of him being a “much loved Husband/Father”.

Making Contact

Finding a first cousin match is utterly amazing, but working out how to make contact, especially with someone who might not be prepared for such surprising news, is tricky! 

Facebook proved invaluable again.  Craig posted on a family history group for the area where we thought the new match lived.  Within thirty minutes he had a response from someone who knew the family.  They were able to confirm that Tom had never married or had children after the war – which explained why we hadn’t been able to find any information about them…

Maureen’s list of DNA matches continued to grow.  By November 2017 she had over 1,000 4th cousin matches – a massive increase in just over six months. 

Then came the breakthrough we’d been waiting for.  Craig received an email from the first cousin’s Granddaughter.  She confirmed that Tom had served in England for two years, said she was able to send photos by post and included that all-important phrase… “Welcome to the family”.

More information began to stream in, giving personal information about Maureen’s Father.  Tom had lived with his brother’s family, so Maureen’s new cousin had known her Uncle very well – she even had a doll that he had given her when she was nine.  Finally, we were confident that we had found Maureen’s American GI Father.

Meeting Family

Tom’s extended family were keen to meet their newly discovered English relatives.  Craig was fortunate enough to be able to visit West Virginia in early 2018 and meet many of the DNA matches in person.  He was given a walking stick that had belonged to his Grandfather and a locket to take home to give to Maureen.

You would think that there couldn’t be much more to add to a story like this, but there is one final chapter.  Craig and his Mum visited West Virginia together in the autumn of 2018.  Maureen finally got the chance to meet her American family – but that was not the only reason to celebrate.  Craig and his girlfriend got married during the visit, with the ceremony taking place at the home of Maureen’s new-found cousin – who would have predicted that at the start of this story?

Tom Pritt (1915 -1978)

And Ernest Watts?  Maybe we will never know.