I Found My Dad’s Secret Birth Father Thanks to a MyHeritage DNA Test

I Found My Dad’s Secret Birth Father Thanks to a MyHeritage DNA Test

MyHeritage user Robyn Trickel Barret Dowd has been hooked on genealogy ever since her then-8th-grade daughter came home with a family research project — but her research took a crazy turn when a throwaway comment from a family member led her to uncover a painful family secret. Determined to get to the bottom of it, Robyn embarked on a thorough DNA testing campaign until she finally got some answers… and some new relatives. Here is her story:

It all started around 2004 when my angry half-sister told me to take her off the family tree I’d been working on for the past 20 years. “Besides,” she threw out, “you are following the wrong family anyway!”

What did she mean?

The tree in question traced her line back to Newgate Prison in London, where our ancestor was found guilty and sentenced to transportation to Virginia Plantation in 1743. Was she saying that this ancestor wasn’t really my ancestor?

The father we had in common had unfortunately passed, but my stepmother was still around, so I called her to ask what my half-sister had meant. My stepmother replied that it was all in the past and there was no sense digging up old dirt.

So what she was telling me was that there was truth to those words.

Digging up old dirt

My next move was to call my dad’s only living sister. She knew a family secret and she shared it: one of the five siblings did not belong to her father! She cried on the phone and confessed that she always felt she was the one, since her parents divorced shortly after her birth.

I had to get to the bottom of this.

I’d been attending the annual Southern California Jamboree in order to improve my research skills, and at one of the events, I listened to Bennett Greenspan talking about genetics. What he had to say froze me in my seat.

If I could test two males in my family, I might be able to sort out who was who.

There were only two living males descended from my paternal grandmother at the time. First, I had to break the news to them that one of their fathers might not be a Trickel. My cousin’s first question was, “How will we know?” I replied that if we were lucky, either he or my brother would match another family and we would have our answer.

I bought two kits and sent one off to our cousin. I was planning to visit my brother for his 60th birthday and bring him the kit then, but unfortunately, in early June, I received a call from my sister-in-law: she had found my brother deceased that morning. I changed my ticket and flew out that night — kit in hand. The mortuary agreed to take his DNA sample and told me they did this all the time and not to worry. I worried anyway, as he was being cremated; what if the postal service lost his test? I grabbed his toothbrush and put it in a Ziplock bag just in case!

A few months later, we had our answer. My dad was not a Trickel, but a Barlow. He had a close match with a Barlow in Georgia.

When I told my aunt, she cried again. I think she had been blaming herself all those years for her parents’ divorce. Then she stopped and said, “I’m still your aunt!” Yes, she was.

Finding my grandfather

Now that we had the answer, a new question arose: how do I go about finding which Barlow man was my grandfather?

Here’s what we knew: My grandmother was living in a tent city in the oil fields of Pawhuska, Oklahoma at the time of my father’s conception. She and her two children had followed her husband for his work in the field. While working there, he was arrested for moonshine running in late 1923–early 1924, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. The story is left to the reader’s imagination as to what happened after, but my dad was born in the tent!

Researching Barlow men in the area, I found two brothers listed on the 1920 census. One was an oil foreman, and one was an oil pumper. They were also listed in city directories. So I made the assumption of who my great-grandparents were and worked up a family tree. This was 2008.

I wrote to the oil foreman’s descendants, and their responses ranged from skepticism to downright, “I don’t know who you are!” I felt like the woman I contacted hung up on me, even though it was on Facebook!

Years passed, and over time, I took a DNA test myself and managed to get my dad’s sister, my half-brother, my children, and my German-born sister-in-law to test as well. I uploaded our data to a few different websites, including MyHeritage, in hopes of casting a wider net.

After checking all of my DNA uploads weekly, finally — in September 2018 — I received a message from MyHeritage informing me of new DNA matches… and there he was, my brick-wall-breaker! 371.1 cMs! My Barlow first cousin! My dad’s nephew! His father had passed away earlier, so I guess that led him to decide to take a DNA test, and he chose MyHeritage. It was officially confirmed: the oil pumper was my paternal grandfather!

My brick-wall breaker was as excited as I was that I found him. The family had no idea that my dad existed, but once he found out, he and his brother drove from Oklahoma to California to meet me.

Jeff and Wayne Barlow (my Brick Wall Buster) and myself, Robyn Trickel Dowd, 2020

Jeff and Wayne Barlow (my Brick Wall Buster) and myself, Robyn Trickel Dowd, 2020

Meeting Jill Binder, another Barlow cousin, in Oklahoma

Meeting Jill Binder, another Barlow cousin, in Oklahoma

This summer, we had a mini-reunion in Owasso, Oklahoma. Our cousin Wayne Barlow met us in Pawhuska, where my father was born. Wayne wanted us to see the Barlow heritage through his eyes. He took us to a bridge that was commissioned by our great-grandfather, John Wesley Barlow, or JW. JW owned a blacksmith shop in Caney, Kansas making carriages, but moved on to Oklahoma when the oil fields beckoned. He was very influential in the Pawhuska community: his picture hangs in the Pawhuska Courthouse. It was closed when we were there, but the local museum had several plaques noting his works. JW was killed working in the oil fields in 1918, at age 57, when he was struck in the head by the derrick of a pipe pulling machine.

Robyn’s great-grandfather, JW Barlow

Robyn’s great-grandfather, JW Barlow

Our mini-reunion in Oklahoma was with 3 Barlow descendants that we had met since 2019, Wayne and Jeff Barlow and Jill Binder. Unfortunately, my half-uncle that I had so wanted to meet was sick and unable to come. It was a disappointment of the trip. I had wanted to see if he and my dad shared mannerisms, voices, or interests.

The next day, Wayne, Jeff, and their significant others, caravaned us to our great-great-grandfather’s grave in Anderson, Missouri. I would never have found it without their help. So though the reunion didn’t include my half-uncle, I got to “meet” my great-great-grandfather, Alfred Barlow.