The End of an Old Family Myth

It was the summer of 1978. I had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to starting college as a film major, something that never panned out. In August the bakery closed two weeks for our annual vacation, this time to Wisconsin. It was only my second time there, having been once before in 1966. That earlier visit was the only time I met any of my grandparents. Three of them died long before I was born. We visited my Mom’s father, George Spencer Grant, who was living in a little house beyond some railroad tracks, but six year old Dean was not very interested in meeting the man, wanting rather to go play with some cousins out in the fields.

In 78 we spent time at the house of my Uncle Clarence and Aunt Phyllis. While there I always spent a lot of my own time down in the basement. It was cool and quiet. It had a pool table and a refrigerator full of soft drinks. But what they also had down there was a single typed page telling a curious story of my Dad’s maternal grandfather, Peder Hansen. It detailed how he was the illegitimate son of the Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel and thus related to the Danish royal family. It claimed that he had been born in “the Yellow Palace in Copenhagen.” It claimed that as a young man he had been given a job as a coachman for the royal family. It had a brief line of descent showing how the minor German country was intertwined with the royal houses of Danmark and England. These were some of the Hessians who served England in the American Revolution.

The paper had been prepared, apparently by a Hansen cousin who shall remain nameless. He had written, “I guess you can see I did my homework” at the top of the page. In later years I believe he retreated from the story, but it was pretty obvious he believed it at the time it was written. I also believed it, and was fascinated by the implications. It was the impetus that set me off on what, to date, has been a 40 year odyssey of genealogical research.

Time passed. In the mid 1980’s another Hansen cousin, Jerry Darrow, compiled family group sheets, photographs, and some biographical sketches into a Hansen family history. Jerry had hired a Danish research, Michael Bregnsbo, who I would also later hire. The research centered largely around parish records and some census date. It was the days before the internet and easy online research, but Michael’s conclusions were inescapable. Peder Hansen came largely from working class roots. The story of royal descent was debunked, at least on paper. In the history Jerry chalked it up to the drunken boasting of a man gathered with his neighbors at a drinking establishment after a hard day’s work.

I was not, however, prepared to abandon Peder Hansen just yet. It was not, as some might believe, because I was attracted to the thought of being royal. It was more out of loyalty to a man I’d never met. Perhaps it didn’t hurt that photos of Peder show a man with a squinty left eye just like I was born with. But still, by this time I was already an experienced genealogical researcher and I knew there were holes in the royal story big enough to drive a Carlsberg truck through. Peder was not born in Kobenhavn – had possibly never been there in his life. I doubted he had ever been near the Yellow Palace (Det Gule Palæ). However, very near to where Peder was born there is a manor estate called Juellinge, owned at the time of Peder’s birth by the Moltke family, another German family writ large in Danish history. It was not outside the realm of possibility that Peder’s mother Birthe had worked for a time at Juellinge. Could Peder have been fathered by a Moltke, or perhaps someone visiting the Moltkes? Had Juellinge been confused with the Yellow Palace? Interesting speculation but pertinent records were sparse and I did not devote a lot of effort to the theory. As time passed I did sense that DNA would be the key in finally unlocking the truth.

Many years ago I participated in the National Geographic Genographic Project. At that time the tests revealed only my Haplogroup, R1B – later refined to R-M269. But in August of 2017, almost 40 years after I began my research, I upgraded my test with FamilyTreeDNA, who had done the original testing. With the upgrade came autosomal matches. I uploaded my results to GEDMatch and MyHeritage for additional matches. Using the DNA results in conjunction with my traditional genealogical research, I began to identify the MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestors) between myself and my matches. Slowly I worked my way down through the lists. The ones with the highest percentage of common DNA were the easiest. Nephew. First cousins. Many already in my database, which numbers in excess of 25,000 people. A bit more distant became tricky. Non-paternal events, or NPE’s, were even trickier.

This past week or so I finally came to the next two names on my list. It happened to be two Danish women. This meant they were almost assuredly on my Dad’s side, as my Mom’s only Scandinavian ancestry is Norwegian. I did my usual research. One woman turned out to be my third cousin once removed. We share descent in the line of my Dad’s paternal grandparents. The other woman answered the question I’ve had for 40 years. She is descended from Inger Marie, an older sister of Peder Hansen. We have 103 centimorgans in common. On paper we are second cousins, once removed. The Shared cM Project 3.0 tool at DNA Painter shows a predicted range of 0-316 cM’s, with an average of 123. If Peder and Inger Marie did not share the same Dad then my Danish cousin and I would be half second cousins, once removed. For that relationship DNA Painter shows a predicted range of 0-341 with an average of 73, so the royal story is not entirely dead. However, the principle of Occam’s Razor states that when presented with competing hypotheses that make the same predictions, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions. That choice has been pretty clear and is getting more clear. The royal descent story of Peder Hansen should be put to rest, short of some Moltkes emerging from the DNA woodpile. With sincere apologies to my great-grandfather Peder Hansen, from his squinty eyed great grandson.

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