November 26, 2021

Family mysteries become family history

The power of a name

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Dean Williams of Cortland shows off hand knit mittens made by a Norwegian cousin he visited. He is seen here Nov. 5 at Bru 64 in Cortland.

Dean Williams always assumed he was of Scottish and German descent.

But when he did a DNA test, he found out he was 75 percent Norwegian.

He was floored.

And intrigued.

“So many people are doing this DNA testing, I thought it would be interesting to share the story and get other people interested,” said the Cortland man, 54, a French and Spanish teacher at Homer Junior High School.

The Hamburg High School graduate came to SUNY Cortland to get his education degree, did his student teaching in Homer, and has been a teacher there ever since. He is now in his 33rd year.

Williams is now learning to speak Norwegian, has been corresponding with cousins in Norway, spent a week there with a fourth cousin in April and gave a recent talk to the Sons of Norway in Syracuse.

He’s baking lefse, a Norwegian potato goody, and is learning to cook other Norwegian foods with pointy rolling pins.

All his passions: language, family heritage and cooking — have been activated by this
DNA discovery.

The narrative

“I was really close to my mother,” Williams said.

Patricia Halcrow Williams was born and raised in Ontario, Canada, where her parents settled in the 1920s. His mother’s parents immigrated to Canada from Shetland Islands, Scotland.

Williams’ father, Claude Williams, was German. But that was only part of his heritage.

Dean Williams wasn’t close to his dad, who was quiet and shunned family gatherings.

“He wasn’t interested in family heritage or history,” Williams said. “His side of the family
wasn’t close.”

“I always felt German,” Williams said. “I am bilingual in German and English.”

In fact, he taught German at Homer Junior High for 25 years.

His German grandmother gave him the 250-year-old family Bible. But growing up, his Norwegian grandfather was senile in a nursing home. Williams never knew him.

“My whole identity was German,” he said.

In the fall of 2017, Williams found a different spelling for his father’s last name through Ancestry.com — Vraalsen. And there were documents with this name spelling on the Mormon’s Familysearch.org website.

This was new. There weren’t documents on his father’s side readily available because his family was undocumented, living in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he said. And he found the name spelled in a variety of ways: Vraalsen, Wraalsen or Wroldsen. Somewhere along the line, the family changed the name to Williams.

Williams did the DNA tests — actually four of them, which alerted him to his Norwegian heritage.

“Once I realized this name was changed, I wanted to start researching,” he said. “The more I found out, the more I wanted to know.”

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Dean Williams of Cortland talks about a memento from a cousin in Norway. The language teacher recently discovered a new branch of the family.

Start with a name

“Ancestry.com gives you contacts to people in the data base. There were second and third cousins — I found them on Facebook. I wrote to them and explained it to them.”

Tabitha Scoville, executive director of the Cortland County Historical Society at 25 Homer Ave., says the society can help people research their family heritage.

Williams contacted the Clark County Historical Society in Wisconsin and found information on his German branch of the family. Another source: Norwegian Seamen’s Church in New York City, which kept records of all Norwegians aboard.

“We have family files,” Scoville said, “vital statistics, school, town and tax records. We have genealogies donated to us, letters and diaries. Sometimes we have deeds, wills and certificates … marriage certificates. We don’t keep them like they do at the clerk’s office. But if they are lucky, they will (find) them in file. There are Census records.”

“Actually, most of the people that come here have an idea of where to start,” said Scoville.
“They have been doing family history or they heard stories and they want to find out whether they match up with files we have here. They will start with a name.”

A name and beyond

Williams had a name. And this led him to Norwegian relatives who he wrote to in Swedish, a close language to Norwegian.

“I got answers back. I got more and more answers from relatives,” he said

It turns out, his father was half German and half Norwegian.

His dad’s Norwegian relatives had moved to Minnesota and Wisconsin. “They were the ones that changed the name to Williams,” he said.

Williams had taken three “cheap” DNA tests, about $100 a piece: Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and 23andme.com and the more expensive FamilyTreeDNA. Since people access the less expensive tests more, it has a bigger database, Williams said.

He exchanged more emails with his cousins in Norway. They invited him to visit. “We have a room here for you,” Williams was told.

“You don’t know who you’re talking to. I buy plane tickets like candy,” said Williams. “By the end of the conversation, I had bought tickets.”

In April, he went to Norway and stayed with his cousin, May, in a town called Honefoss, 45 minutes from Oslo. He met a slew of cousins, ate waffles and traditional brown cheese.

“I spent almost a week in May’s house,” Williams said. “Even though she is a fourth cousin, the things she has an interest in — her hobbies — match mine: cooking, gardening, a passion for family ancestry, enjoying a bottle of wine or craft beer. … She has researched her family and it’s the subject of a book for her family and it’s at the local history society.”

“When I am one day not doing 9 to 5, I want to do the same thing.” Williams said.

In the meantime, he’s planning a six-week intensive course in Norwegian at the University of Oslo, be his base as he explores his great-grandfather’s farmhouse.

The house is no longer there, but the heritage is.