One of my earliest childhood memories is of meeting my great-grandmother, then in her early 90's. I vaguely remember her sitting in a chair in her room at the nursing home on a sunny day.
Although the 5 or 6 year old me had no reason to do so, I wish now that I had been able to ask her about her childhood and her family.
Although Helen Marley Johnson lived to be 93 years old, she died without knowing the identity of her biological parents. Helen was adopted at birth and lived with three different families by the time she was 13.
By 1904, when the 15-year-old posed for this picture at the Oswego County Fair in upstate New York, she had been adopted by the final family, one she would marry into.
The only record of Helen's birth is a birth certificate which neither listed her name, nor identified her father.
Although a "Minerva D. Johnson" is listed as her mother, nothing has yet been found about this mysterious individual.
One day, when she was much older, Helen visited the graves of Benjamin and Helen (Chapel) Bulen, the couple that first adopted her.
She placed flowers on their grave and expressed her belief that these were her parents.
Sadly, given her age, it's impossible that Helen Chapel was her biological mother.
When Helen - then known as "Marley" - died in 1983, she left behind a large family which grows larger with every passing year.
The mystery of her ancestry also continues to grow.
During the search for Helen's parents, I discovered a copy of Aesop's Fables with an inscription to “Helen Mar Johnson” from a “Marcus A. Bartlett,” that Helen received when she was only 8 years old.
In 1906, almost 10 years later, the same Marcus A. Bartlett, now ordained, officiated at her wedding.
What was Marcus Bartlett's relationship with Helen? Was he simply a caring minister, or could he be Helen's father?
Genetic genealogy - using DNA to explore ancestry - is perhaps the last great hope for finding Helen's biological parents.
In 2012, two descendants of Helen agreed to undergo DNA testing. The test was able to identify the portions of their DNA that they share - the portions of their DNA that they inherited from Helen.
Armed with this DNA, I'm identifying specific genetic matches who likely share ancestry with Helen, thereby providing clues to her genealogy.
For example, by examining the family trees of people who share these identified segments of DNA, I will hopefully find potential historical candidates who were "in the right place at the right time."
For example, there several matches with the surname ROSE, or the name ROSE in their family tree, that seem to share these segments of DNA.
The second family Helen went to live with as a child was the family of Frank and Marilla Rose, a family to which the Bulens were related.
Is this yet another piece of the puzzle?
Although I have some tantalizing results that are just beginning to shed light on the mystery, I have not yet identified Helen's parents.
Eventually, however, DNA will help solve a mystery nearly 125 years in the making.