Press "Enter" to skip to content

Using a Single Photo & DNA Matching, I Unlocked the Secret Her Grandmother Took to the Grave

Maria Brolin, an experienced genealogist and educator from Sweden, recently helped one of her clients make an amazing breakthrough using MyHeritage’s advanced DNA tools. This is her story:

The first time that I really heard about my maternal ancestry and saw my family tree was when my grandfather showed me the family research that his brother had been working on. I was amazed by who these people were that had contributed to my being here, but I was young and not interested in doing genealogy myself. It was not until 2008 that I started my own genealogy research and immediately I was hooked. In 2014 I took my first DNA test, a test that has been followed by many more, and since that moment I have been intrigued by the wonderful world of our chromosomes. For several years I’ve been working in the field of genetic genealogy, giving lectures and workshops both in person and online. In 2018 I started my own company Gener & Anor ( that aims to educate people about genetic genealogy. I also offer contract research for people who are searching for their parents and grandparents. This story is one of these cases.

I’ve known Barbro for a few years now. We met when I lectured at a local genealogy association. I knew that she had been searching for her unknown maternal grandfather for more than 50 years. Barbro, who was now 75 years old, felt that it was time to get help with her search. She conducted a solid amount of genealogy research using church records and other sources. She had also taken a DNA test and transferred the result to MyHeritage and other databases. She found it hard to interpret all the numbers and words and understand what the DNA result actually meant. So last summer she got in touch with me and I agreed to take on her case.

The single clue: a photo with a heartbreaking inscription

Barbro’s grandmother knew who the father of her illegitimate daughter was, but never revealed it — neither to her daughter nor to her grandchildren. She died in 1951 at 65 years of age without having ever revealed his name. The only thing she said about him was: “He did not want to know of us, therefore we shall never speak about him.” She took the secret to her grave, but left a vital clue behind: a photo. This photo, found after her death, features a young man, and on the back is a sad inscription:

He who I best and most honestly believed
he who lived in my heart
came and whispered forget
and snuck away like a rapid dream

Barbro’s grandfather

Barbro’s grandfather

The text on the backside of the photo

The text on the backside of the photo

The photo is credited to the photographer “Anton & Co” in Stockholm.

Barbro’s grandmother Anna was born in 1886 in the Tengene parish, which is located in Skaraborg county in the south of Sweden. She worked as a maid in the area surrounding her home, but she also lived for a while in Skövde and in Uddevalla. In November 1909, she moved to the Kungsholm parish in Stockholm to work for a family there, but in June 1910, she moved from Stockholm to Vänersborg, where her brother lived. By this time, she was pregnant with her future daughter Magnhild. Magnhild was born on the last day of November 1910, and must therefore have been conceived sometime in February or March the same year. We can therefore be certain that the conception took place in Stockholm. But who was the father?

I started off by logging in to Barbro’s account on the service she originally tested with and starting to go through her DNA matches. There were several DNA matches that Barbro had been able to identify as being on her mother’s and father’s side of the family, but I did not find any good DNA matches that could be traced back to her maternal grandfather. I then logged in to Barbro’s account on MyHeritage, and here I had more success. Her next best DNA match was a mystery match, who we will call John, with whom she shared 245.5 cM (units of shared DNA). Barbro had not been able to find a connection between John and the known parts of her family, and I immediately sensed that I was on to something.

I consider the genetic genealogy tools offered by MyHeritage to be the most valuable available today. Many DNA matches have stated their approximate age, something that can prove to be very useful if the DNA match has a very common surname and is otherwise hard to identify. What I appreciate most about MyHeritage is how you can view shared DNA matches, and that they have an invaluable triangulation tool, the One-to-many Chromosome Browser. 

MyHeritage provides a list of which DNA matches you share with a DNA match. In the case of John, MyHeritage indicated the estimated relationship between John and the DNA match he shared with Barbro as well as how much DNA he shared with this match, measured in cM. This is very valuable and can often lead us in the right direction. For example, if you share 100 cM with a DNA match while your DNA match shares 800 cM with the same match,, this is a very good lead for us when we are searching for our common connection. In this example, your DNA match is much closer related to the match in common than you are.

In Barbro’s case, she shared 58 cM with a match in common while John shared as much as 545 cm with the same match. This gave me a lead to pursue. There was also another match in common, with whom Barbro shared 102 cM. John shared 276 cM with this match. Using traditional genealogy in church records and registers, I was soon able to connect John with the other two matches. Now I had a family tree that I could continue to work on. 

Another invaluable tool that I mentioned earlier is the Chromosome Browser. What this tool does is tell us where the shared DNA with a given match is located on the chromosome. Given that humans inherit two chromosomes in each pair, one from their mother and one from their father, if you and a certain DNA match have another DNA match in common, you cannot automatically deduce whether all 3 of you are related through the same ancestral line or through different lines. But using the Chromosome Browser on MyHeritage, you might be able to sort this out. If the 3 of you have shared (known as “triangulated”) segments on the same place on the same chromosome, you can be sure that you are related through the same ancestral line. I also used MyHeritage’s AutoCluster tool to make it easier to see patterns and make connections between DNA matches.

Barbro’s DNA matches which she shares with John. The purple stripes to the right tell us that Barbro, John and the match in common triangulate and therefore share the same ancestral line

Barbro’s DNA matches which she shares with John. The purple stripes to the right tell us that Barbro, John and the match in common triangulate and therefore share the same ancestral line

Using the information that I got from MyHeritage regarding the shared DNA matches and the triangulation together with traditional genealogy work, I was able to connect the three DNA matches in a family tree. Next, I used a probability tool from another site to generate theories about how all the matches may have been related.Soon I was zooming in on a couple of brothers born in the 1880s. One of the brothers, Gustaf, lived in the Matteus parish in Stockholm in 1910, not far from Kungsholm parish. At this point in time he was not married. The other brother did not live in Stockholm, so the evidence was pointing towards Gustaf. 

I decided to visit the site Svenskt Porträttarkiv, a free Swedish portrait site. I conducted a quick search and was shocked when I found Gustaf almost at once. The similarity between the photo there and the photo found in grandmother Anna’s estate was striking! It was the same man who looked into the camera. The case was now almost solved.

Barbro’s maternal grandfather Gustaf, Svenskt porträttarkiv

Barbro’s maternal grandfather Gustaf, Svenskt porträttarkiv

I started to map Gustaf’s life from 1910 onward. Gustaf later married and had children from that marriage. After some research, I found that Barbro had a half-cousin who was still alive. Barbro made contact with her in a letter and told her story and what we had discovered using genetic genealogy. She also attached the photo that was found in the estate. The reaction was spontaneous: “That is my grandfather Gustaf!” Barbro’s half-cousin had an identical photo at home, proving beyond all doubt that Gustaf really was Barbro’s maternal grandfather.

Barbro had finally got the answer to the question of who her grandfather was. Unfortunately, it was too late for her mother Magnhild to get the answer, as she died in 1979. Magnhild’s middle name was Gustava, and one can not help but wonder whether she was named after her father. Gustaf died in Stockholm in 1966.

To help Barbro understand more about her grandfather, I went back in time and started to investigate Gustaf’s earlier life. He was born in the Skövde parish and lived there when he was young. He later lived somewhere else, but returned to Skövde in 1904 and stayed with his father, mother, and some of his siblings. In 1907, he moved to Stockholm. This is the period during which Barbro’s grandmother worked as a maid in Skövde. Our theory is that Anna and Gustaf knew each other from their time in Skövde and that, when they moved to Stockholm, they made contact with each other. Exactly what happened we will never know, but we know that it resulted in a child.

I must point out that this is an exceptional case. It is generally very rare to draw a definite conclusion about kinship-based solely on genetic genealogy (unless, of course, you get a very close match). If not for the photo that was verified by Barbro’s half-cousin, it would have taken much more work to figure this out, and even then, we may still not have managed to solve the mystery. Ascertaining kinship using DNA takes a lot of analysis, and often one concludes a strong likelihood of a certain relationship, without being able to fully confirm it. It often ends with hypotheses that need to be proven or discarded. That was not done in this case, and I want to emphasize this. Barbro’s half-cousin lives in France, where DNA tests are illegal, and under current circumstances, it is impossible to confirm by taking a DNA test.

I am very happy and grateful that I was able to help Barbro find an answer to a lifelong question. She now has the name of her grandfather, and a pair of cousins have connected late in life. Barbro’s best mystery match on MyHeritage, John, turned out to be a second cousin. Without MyHeritage and the tools it offers, we most certainly would not have been able to solve this mystery.

Barbro’s grandmother Anna

Barbro’s grandmother Anna

Anna & Gustaf’s daughter Magnhild with her daughters Eva and Barbro

Anna & Gustaf’s daughter Magnhild with her daughters Eva and Barbro


Maria Brolin has been an active genealogist, working with family research since 2008 and she took her first DNA test in 2014. For a few years now, she has been working with genealogy through DNA, and she holds lectures, courses and workshops, both on site at associations and in educational institutions, but also online. In 2018, she started the company Gener & Anor (, a company that aims to educate in DNA genealogy. Maria offers research in genealogy and DNA genealogy for anyone looking for biological parents, grandparents or other biological family members.

The post Using a Single Photo & DNA Matching, I Unlocked the Secret Her Grandmother Took to the Grave appeared first on MyHeritage Blog.

Source: My Heritage

Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *