John Smithers had spent more than six decades looking for clues about the father who abandoned the family when he was just a baby. The barrel-chested, brash-talking Smithers had something he wanted to give his old man: a fist in the nose.
At 82, he had about given up on ever learning what happened to James William Smithers. The Raleigh, N.C., man had long suspected his father got in trouble with the law and fled abroad. Decades ago, it was easy enough to disappear, and Smithers’ father had seemingly vanished into thin air.
On the other side of the world, Lucinda Gray had always wondered what her father’s life was like before he moved mysteriously from the United States to Australia. She had spent years just trying to find out his real name.
In December, Smithers and Gray learned their elusive fathers were one and the same.
After years of poring over records online and in person, across continents and oceans, it took only a DNA sample from a simple cheek scrape to bring the two branches of the family together.
“I was skeptical at first,” said Smithers, a retired insurance-company investigator. “But when I talked to my sister, I knew this is what I’d been hoping for my whole life.”
The case shows what a “new frontier” DNA has become in genealogical research, said Debbi Blake, a North Carolina state archivist.
DNA has been in genealogical use since 2000, according to Thomas Shawker, a radiologist with the National Institutes of Health who has become a nationally renowned expert on the use of the latest science in genealogy. Its use since then among professional genealogists and family historians has mushroomed.
But the impact of DNA hasn’t been as significant as the Internet, which transformed genealogical research by making records from distant places available at the click of a mouse. Some of the genealogy search sites charge a fee, though many of the raw birth, death, marriage and property records are available free online.
As more people who share a surname start their own registries, DNA’s role is expanding into the modern age — uniting living relatives. The Smithers-Gray case is a perfect example.
Like her half-brother, John Smithers, Lucinda Gray had been trying to investigate her father’s veiled history for many years.
Her dad, John Henderson Gray, who died in 1970, had been a fine father to her and her four siblings, and a good husband to their mother. But even their mother didn’t know his true identity.
He had moved from the United States to Australia in 1926; in 1944, at age 51, he had married their mother, Betty, then 22.
It was well known that Gray had changed his name when he moved down under. “Our mother always assumed he’d changed his identity because of some strife,” Lucinda Gray said.
Without an accurate surname, Gray’s search was stymied.
She began working with a professional genealogist named Colleen Fitzpatrick.
For years, they combed through records and family clues, always coming up with uncertain results.
Finally, Fitzpatrick persuaded Gray to consider collecting DNA samples. Tracking an unknown male ancestor involves a cheek scraping for Y-DNA from a living male family member. Gray submitted a sample from her brother, Linc, to a database of 68,000 samples from other men.
At first there were no apparent matches. Nothing close.
Over time, though, Gray and Fitzpatrick discovered that Linc’s sample closely matched a DNA group study of family members with related last names Smothers, Smithey and Smithers.
Fitzpatrick eventually narrowed the search to a man named James William Smithers. She used the name to find Charles Edward Smithers — John Smithers’ nephew.
The nephew confirmed the family connection but said he had never been interested in genealogy or what happened to his long-lost grandfather. He suggested Fitzpatrick contact his sister, Terri Treadwell.
Treadwell is the one who contacted Smithers with the news: “Uncle John, I think we found your dad.”
Smithers, his siblings and his niece — from the elder Smithers’ first and apparently only legal marriage — have compiled a trans-Atlantic Web site on James William Smithers, with dozens of photos and reams of scanned historical documents.
Using flight-passenger lists, Lucinda Gray also confirmed that James William Smithers — a/k/a John Henderson Gray — had traveled from Australia to Boston in fall 1936 — when young John Smithers was a boy of 10 with a chip on his shoulder about his missing dad. His mother had told her son that the elder Smithers died in 1927— but John Smithers never believed it.
One of his most vivid memories of childhood involved a mysterious visit that fall from a man who claimed to be a friend of his father.
The man sat Smithers down after school, showed him family photos and delivered the sort of talk a boy might get from his father. Now Smithers is convinced: “That was my dad.”