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Your Story: Tip Brings Long-lost Answers


Growing up in Illinois, my family’s origins were almost invisible. I knew the names of my grandparents and great-grandparents, but I still wondered how we got here. I heard we came from Ireland or Germany or England, but those places seemed far off. In truth, it was like my family had sprung out of the ground in America, grilling burgers and going bowling.

It was only after my grandma passed away that I began thinking about her maiden name: McDonald. I read through books and websites about Scottish clans, with their images of tartans and kilts and bagpipes. I was pretty certain we belonged to Clan Donald, one of the oldest and most powerful of the Highland clans. But I really wanted more than words – I wanted proof. And that became a problem because I could only trace my McDonald ancestors back to the 1890s to the exotic locale of Missouri.

This all changed the day my mom and Aunt Donna discovered a letter in a box of old family photos. The letter said that my great-great-great-great-grandparents were named Hiram and Nancy McDonald. I went to, and soon I found census and marriage records showing that my ancestors Hiram and Nancy lived in Lincoln County, Missouri, beginning in the 1830s.

Fantastic! I had found my family. But it wasn’t enough. If I were going to uncover a link to Clan Donald, I’d first need to find out who Hiram’s parents were, and where they lived before the 1830s — before Missouri. But how to do that?

I turned to the 1830 census – the census taken just before the earliest record I’d located for Hiram and Nancy. But there were no McDonald households in Lincoln County. The closest I got were two households headed by people named “McDanel.”

Now, my initial thought was to dismiss this find and try to figure out some other way to find Hiram and Nancy’s family. But then I looked more closely at the McDanel households. The first was headed by Cyrus McDanel, a young man with a wife and children. The second was headed by Elizabeth McDanel, a woman in her 40s with a household of 11 young adults and children.

What if. … What if my ancestor Hiram was one of them? And what if Cyrus was his brother? What if the census taker had just gotten the family name wrong?

I kept researching. I found coincidences that I couldn’t ignore: Cyrus and Elizabeth were listed only a page apart in the 1830 census. Samuel K. Tilford was Cyrus’s neighbor – and shared a last name with the woman Hiram would marry in the same county three years later. More details added up in online records and at courthouses, and an anonymous tip in an online tree led me to a county in Virginia. Eventually I followed the family all the way back to Scotland … but not quite as quickly as it now sounds.

Suffice it to say, I learned my lessons. Spelling isn’t everything, names change and it pays to have an open mind. If I hadn’t been desperate for clues, I may have never looked at those two McDanels in the 1830 census. If I hadn’t researched the McDanels, I may have never made my connection to the past. And I might still be here scratching my head, wondering exactly how we got here, where we were from and how I could learn more.

— Ryan Littrell

You can read more about Ryan Littrell’s journey in his new book Reunion: A Search for Ancestors. Learn more about his research in this interview with the Barefoot Genealogist, Crista Cowan.

Your Story: Answers from My Dad’s Shipmate

My father, Simon Mostofsky, was killed in action shortly after D-Day. He was a pharmacist mate caring for the wounded on an LST on its way back to Britain. I never knew the name (actually it’s a number) of the ship he was on, but for some reason I did know it had not been sunk. 

In 2010, sent me a hint for a record that led me to the National Personnel Record Center, Military Personnel Records in St. Louis. They directed me to the Library of Congress, and I was sent the records identifying the ship as LST 280. When I received the information I did an online search for the LST 280, and found a blog with two email addresses. One responded, amazingly by a gentleman, H. R. Shawhan,  who was not only a shipmate, but knew my father well, credited my father with having saved his life during a serious illness,  and actually spoke to him just minutes before the fatal torpedo hit. 

I was less than a year old when this happened, but receiving this information was very emotional.  I did try to arrange a visit with him, but could never get a date. I believe the incident itself was too emotional for him to handle. I am attaching the letter he sent me which is attached to my father’s profile on

Steve Mostofsky
Greensboro, NC

Your Story: Twisted Branches

When I first got Family Tree Maker, I was just checking to make sure the “How is this person related to me?” button would actually work. To test it out, I clicked on my mother’s name in my tree. As expected it said she was my mother, but I was flabbergasted to learn she was also my fifth cousin. That sent me scrambling up all branches of my tree to see where they crossed. Low and behold, on my mother’s paternal side, my great-great-grandparents William King Laughlin (1805-1861) and his wife Margaret King (1808-1870) are related on two sides. His maternal great grandfather Edward King (1720-1790) is her paternal grandfather. Her maternal great-grandparents John Laughlin and Jane Mathews are his paternal great grandparents. 

The intrigue doesn’t stop there. My maternal grandmother, Carrie Harper in order to escape the confines of her home in West Virginia became a mail order bride.  She wrote to a man far away in Illinois. He came and whisked her away to the surprise of her father and step-mother. While tracing both branches of my grandparent’s trees, I discovered their families had already met 177 years prior. On I found court records of my grandfather’s ancestors suing my grandmother’s ancestors for false advertising. In 1740 they purchased land in the Shenandoah River Valley.  Thinking they were settling into an established community, they felt defrauded when discovering it was inhabited by “wild savages.” The judge dismissed the case under “caveat emptor” - buyer beware.

Molly Burke