The Mystery of Olivia Smith

back to Family Stories, Spring 2020

by Casey Driscoll, 7 May 2020

My name is Casey Driscoll, and I am a sophomore at Villanova. This semester I took a brand new course being offered at our university: genealogy. As a part of this course, all of the students in the class got to take a DNA test through the company Ancestry. Upon receiving our results, our goal was to construct a pedigree (also known as a family tree). Ancestry has a lot of different tools and information on its website that can help its users construct their family trees. One of the main parts of the website that I found to be most useful was called “DNA Matches.” This section of the website provides each user with a list of people with whom they share DNA. In other words, it provides a list of relatives. On top of that, Ancestry predicts how closely related the user is to each individual on their list, and orders the people on the list based on degree of relatedness. Ancestry makes this prediction using a measurement called centimorgans (cM). A cM is the measure of recombination frequency in DNA, and scientists can essentially use it like a measurement of distance to figure out how much DNA two people share. When looking at my DNA matches, I quickly realized that I already knew the first five people on my list. They were all either great aunts, great uncles, or first cousins once removed, and I was easily able to figure out where they fit into my family tree.

Then I ran into a problem. The sixth person on my DNA matches list was named “Olivia Smith” [name changed for privacy reasons], and I had absolutely no clue who she was. On Ancestry, it said that I shared 356 cM of DNA with Olivia across 12 DNA segments, and it projected that we were first to second cousins. I was completely shocked that I was so closely related to someone who I had never heard of. I quickly pulled out my genealogy textbook to look at the average number of cM shared between people at different levels of relatedness. Upon looking at the book, I realized that the average number of centimorgans shared between two first cousins once removed is 439 cM, and the average number of centimorgans shared between two second cousins is 233 cM. The 356 cM that I share with Olivia falls right in between these two estimates. At this point, I was totally stumped, but I decided to dig a little deeper. Using Ancestry, I was able to look at Olivia’s ethnicity estimate. Ancestry estimated that she was over 70% Irish, and I am completely Irish on my father’s side of the family. My mother’s side is primarily Eastern European, and it is almost definitely 0% Irish. This allowed me to conclude that Olivia is a relative on my father’s side of the family. I then used a different Ancestry function called “Shared Matches.” This function allows an Ancestry user to see a list of people who are DNA matches for both themself and someone else. I was able to use this function to figure out that my paternal grandmother’s brother (my great uncle) was also a DNA match for Olivia. This allowed me to conclude that Olivia was not only on my father’s side of the family, but on my paternal grandmother’s side of the family.

This was a somewhat shocking discovery for me for one main reason. My paternal grandmother was incredibly interested in genealogy. She passed away on December 26, 2018, but before her death, it was one of her favorite hobbies. She kept a bunch of different books and binders that had all sorts of information about my father’s side of the family in them. Luckily, my grandfather still had all of these books, and I was able to look through them with my cousin to help with my family tree research. Unfortunately, and somewhat strangely, there was no mention of Olivia Smith in any of these books. If there was anywhere that I expected to see the name come up, it was in my grandmother’s records. At this point, I was at a total roadblock. I then noticed that Olivia Smith had a family tree on Ancestry. I was able to access the tree, and when I looked at it, I did not recognize any of the names. I quickly showed it to my father, and he did not recognize any of the names either. He started texting all of his aunts, uncles, and cousins to ask if any of them had heard the name Olivia Smith before, and nobody had. All of my relatives were just as surprised as I was when they heard that she came up on my DNA matches list. 

A few weeks ago, left with no other options, I decided to message Olivia through Ancestry. I knew that reaching out to her was a long shot, but I had my fingers crossed that she would answer. Unfortunately, she still has not gotten back to me. At this point, I have two different hypotheses. The first hypothesis is that someone on my father’s side of the family is using a fake name for their Ancestry account and that “Olivia Smith” is actually someone who I already know. I think that this is the more unlikely of the two hypotheses. The second hypothesis is that one of my paternal grandmother’s siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, or grandparents (because the 356 cM also falls in the range for first cousins twice removed) had a kid outside of wedlock that nobody knows about. More specifically, I am guessing that this person had a daughter at a young age (said daughter is Olivia Smith) and put her up for adoption. This would explain why I did not recognize any of the names in Olivia’s family tree; it may be a tree of her adopted family not her biological family. Therefore, I think that this is the more likely of the two hypotheses. Right now, I am not sure what to do to solve this mystery. I have been researching Olivia for weeks, and I have used every avenue that I know of. However, I do not plan on giving up. Hopefully sometime this summer I will finally solve this big family mystery and learn how I am related to Olivia Smith.