George W. Whistler (Fort Wayne, Indiana, May 19, 1800 – April 7, 1849 in Saint Petersburg, Russia) was a prominent American railroad engineer in the first half of the 19th century.
George was born at the military outpost of Fort Wayne which his father, John Whistler, had helped build. His mother was Anna Bishop, daughter of Sir Edward Bishop of Great Britain.
He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1819 and served in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, retiring as a First Lieutenant in 1833. In 1834 he became Chief Engineer at the Proprietors of Locks and Canals in the new city of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Whistler's first wife, Mary R. Swift, died in 1827, after they had had three children, a girl and two boys. He later married Anna Matilda McNeill, with whom he had five sons. Whistler's Mother, a portrait of Anna, by their first son, James McNeill Whistler, is among the most famous paintings in American art.
Stone arch railroad bridges built by George Washington Whistler in 1841 are still in freight and passenger service on the CSX mainline in western Massachusetts.
He was the first Civil Engineer in America to use contour lines to show elevation and relief on maps.
214. (Born Ind.). GEORGE W. WHISTLER*... .(Ap'd Ky.). .12 Military History. — Cadet at the Military Academy, July 31, 1814, to July 1, 1819, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to Second Lieut., Corps of Artillery, July 1, 1819. Served : on Topographical duty, 1819 ; in garrison at Ft. Colnmbns, N. Y., 1819-20 ; on Topographical duty, 1820-21 ; at the Military Acad (Second Lieut., 1st Artillery, in Re-organization of Army, June 1, 1821) (Transferred to 2d Artillery, Aug. 16, 1821) 214 Number. Clam Hank. 1810. emy, as Asst. Teacher of Drawing, Nov. 2, 1821, to Apr. 30, 1822 ; and (First Lieut., 2d Artillery, Aug. 16, 1829) on Topographical duty, Apr. 30, 1822, to Dec. 31, 1833. Resigned, Dec. 31, 1833. Civil History. — Civil Engineer in the United States, from 1833 to 1842, — and in Russia, from 1842 to 1849. Associate Engineer, Balti more and Ohio Railroad, 1828-29, —. of Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad, 1830, — of Paterson, N. J., and Hudson River Railroad, 1831-32, — and of Stonington, Ct., and Providence, R. I., Railroad, 1833, 1834, and 1837. Superintending Engineer of Locks and Canals Company, Lowell, Mas., 1835-36. Consulting Engineer, Western Railroad, from Worcester, Mas., to Albany, N. Y., 1837-40, — and Chief Engineer, 1840-42. Superintending Engineer of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad, Russia, 1842-49. Died, Apr. 7, 1849, at St. Petersburg, Russia : Aged 49. • Was the brother of Col. William Whistler, U. S. Army. BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. Major George Washington Whistler was born, May 19, 1800, at Ft. Wayne, Indiana, then a part of the great Northwest Territory. He was the son of John Whistler, a British soldier under Burgoyne at Sara toga, who subsequently entered our service, was wounded in St. Clair's defeat on the Miami, Nov. 4, 1791, and rose to be a Captain of the U. S. First Infantry, with the brevet of Major, in which regiment he served throughout the War of 1812-15 with Great Britain. Thus, on the Indian frontier, young Whistler was brought up with predilections for a soldier's life, which were soon gratified by his appoint ment from Kentucky, July 31, 1814, to be a Cadet of the U. S. Military Academy. Bcing then only fourteen years old, and of a joyous, mirth ful disposition, it is not surprising that he was more devoted to boyish frolic and playing his flute than to dry, mathematical studies. The consequence of this exuberant love of fun was his bcing frequently an inmate of the guard-house, and often having to perform extra artillery drill, astride a cannon, before the quarters of the Acting Superintendent, then known as " Old Pewter's Salt-Box." Though " Pipes " (Whistler's sobriquet) was never studious at West Point, he quickly developed a decided talent for drawing, and such were his natural abilities that of his elass, numbering over thirty members, he became the most proficient pupil in Descriptive Gcometry, then just introduced by Professor Crozet, an eleve of the celebrated Monge in the Polytechnic School of France. Notwithstanding this neglect of his studies," Whistler was graduated, July 1, 1819, twelfth in his elass, and promoted in the Army to be a Second Lientenant in the Corps of Artillery. On graduation, Whistler, having shown such skill in drawing and the use of mathematical instruments, was detailed for topographical duty as assistant to Major Abert on surveys for military defenses. The first of these was Salem harbor, Mas., the shores bcing required to be represented by horizontal contour lines. None of the officers knew how to do it, and while all were pondering the problem, Whistler, seated on a hill, sud denly sprang up shouting " Eureka ! " His discovery, I he plan now gener ally used, was very simple, as was Columbus' egg standing on end after the failure of all the courtiers at the grand cardinal's feast to accom plish it. In 1821, Whistler was ordered back to the Military Academy as the Assistant Teacher of Drawing. Leaving West Point, Apr. 30, 1822, he 215 Number. Class Rank. 1819. was again detailed for topographical duty, upon which he remained till Dec. 31, 1833, when he resigned from the Army, he then bcing a First Lientenant iil the Second Regiment of Artillery. His first service, during this last detail, was in connection with the Northwest Boundary of the United States, beyond Lake Superior, he having charge of a surveying party. It bcing midwinter, with the thermometer frequently 50° below zero, and the ground covered with blinding snow, thcir sufferings were very severe. Add to these hardships that thcir food was mostly tallow and Indian pemmican, thcir daily marches made on snowshoes, and at night having to bivouac with no other covering than a buffalo robe to prevent thcir freezing. At the end of this severe ordeal, Whistler was transferred to more agreeable duties, — surveys for the Western Armory, Railroads, ete. At this time, there bcing only a few instructed engineers in the United States, scientifically educated graduates of the Military Academy were wisely loaned by the government to assist private chartered companies in carrying out thcir various schemes of internal improvement. Among these pioneer enterprises was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, upon which Whistler was employed, in 1828-29, as an associate engineer. By this company be was sent to England with Jonathan Knight, Captain William Gibbs McNcill, of the U. S. Topographical Engineers, and Ross Winaus, to examine and report upon the organization, construction, and equipment of the railroads of Great Britain. Tbey were cordially re ccived by the most eminent civil engineers in England, and after a care ful study of numerous works returned, in 1829, laden with much valuable professional information. Whistler had charge of the first mile of track laid on the Baltimore and Ohio Road, — the first track for passenger cars put down by any com pany in this country. Before it was quite finished, a rupture unfortu nately took place between the directors of the company and the United States engineers. In 1830, McNcill and Whistler entered the service of the Baltimore and Susquchanna (now part of the Northern Central) Rail road, the latter remaining on the work till about twenty miles of main and branch track had been completed, when financial embarrassments put a stop to the company's operations. In 1831-32, Whistler was engaged upon the Paterson and Hudson (now southern terminus of Erie) Railroad ; and in 1833-34, upon the Providence and Stonington Railroad. Though associated with Major McNcill in these and other works, it is well under stood that, while his senior attended to the management of directors, Whistler was the real executive head upon whom devolved all profes sional duties, and the supervision of every detail. Leaving the Stonington Road in 1834, Whistler was appointed Chief Engineer of the " Proprietors of Locks and Canals on the Merrimack River," a corporation owning a machine shop in Lowell, Mas., then the largest and best in New England. Here he furnished the most complete detailed drawings of locomotives, and introduced into thcir construction such a superior style of workmanship and taste that his engines enjoyed a higher reputation than any others in this country. He it was, though himself a fine musician, who invented that very useful but most un musical locomotive whistle, now making day and night hidcous with shrieking discord. While at Lowell, his wife, the sister of Major McNcill, bore him a son, — the now famous artist, James A. Whistler, — who has inherited his father's graphic talents, but not much of his sweet amiability of temper, judging from his controversy in England with Mr. Ruskin. In 1837 Whistler, with Captain William If. Swift (his most devoted friend, and brother-in-law by his first marriage), was engaged on the Western Railroad of Massachusetts, now with the Worcester constituting the Boston and Albany Road. Till 1840, he was only the Consulting and 216 Number. Class Rams. 1819. then, till 1842, the Chief Engineer of the road. During this latter period he built the fine railroad bridge across the Connecticut River at Spring field, Mas. Though many important railroads had been constructed in England prior to 1842, and about 4,000 miles of track had been opened in the United States, Russia, at that time, had in operation only a short pas senger road of cighteen miles, from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe-Selo. The Emperor Nicholas, extremely desirous of extending the system, scut the Chevalier de Gerstner and two distinguished engineer officers of high rank to this country to select the best person to be found who would undertake the planning and building of the contemplated St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad. After spending several months in the United States in visiting our public works and studying the skill of thcir con struction and the efficiency of thcir management, they returned to Russia, reporting strongly in favor of Major Whistler's experience, attainments, and capacity as an engineer. Accordingly he was invited to accept a liberal salary and proceed at once to Russia to become the " Consulting Engineer of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad," a work pro jected by the Czar himself, to be built by the Government. Whistler accepted the invitation, was warmly reccived by the Russian ambassador in London, and reached St. Petersburg late in the summer of 1842 to enter upon his magnum opus of uniting, with iron bands, the ancient with the modern capital of the Russian Empire, distant from each other about four hundred miles. Whistler was at once associated with the Technical Commission of Engineers, a Board of nine officers of the highest rank, mostly generals. To this commission Whistler made an elaborate report, Sep. 9, 1842, recommending a five feet track, with I rails, 00 pounds to the yard, sup ported by cross-ties three feet apart, it bcing found, says he, " that, both in England and America, the narrow-gauge roads are the cheapest, safest, and best, the broad gauges having no equivalent advantages." Before this erudite Board, Whistler presented himself to propound and defend his conelusions, though he well knew that the greater part of that learned commission came prejudiced against him, as men in place and dignity are apt to be against a forcigner not of thcir own body, and viewed askance as a kind of adventurer. There is always a proneness to consider one under cross-examination as somewhat of a delinquent or impostor, whose faults and errors are to be detected and exposed, particularly when there is an appearance of innovation upon established doctrine. At this time, both in England and Russia, the opinions of engineers were setting very strongly in favor of wide-gauge railroads, and therefore, in view of all these circumstances, it is not surprising that the whole Technical Commission, with one exception, decided against Whistler in favor of the six-feet gauge. The dissenting member was Colonel Melnikoff, who had carefully examined most of the narrow-gauge roads in Great Britain and America. In an able rejoinder to the adverse decision of the Technical Commission, Whistler rcinforced his original views with powerful argu ments showing " that ncither the result of experience nor probable future advantages calls for a greater width of track than five feet." Suffice it to say that Whistler finally trinmphed, and when we recall the gauge con troversy of those days, and know how much expense and trouble the wide gauge has since caused, the stand taken by our young American engineer then, against such influences and many officers of note, entitles him to very high professional eminence, and illustrates the foresight and com prehensiveness of his mind. In the mean time Whistler, with some Russian engineers of whom he speaks most favorably, reconnoitred the whole line from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and found the country very advantagcous for a railroad, 217 Number. 1810. Ci-ass Rank. bcing nearly flat, but slightly marshy, and with only two broad river val leys to span and thcir streams to bridge. The difficulties of constructing such a road in America would not, even then, have been considered very great, but, in Russia, were formidable because of much official red-tape, the jealousy of most of the Technical Commission, and the hick of all railroad experience, mechanical skill, and organization of public works. Fortunately the Count Klcimnichel, Chief of the " Department of Ways and Communications," an officer with a clear head, possessing eminent executive ability, and without any jealousy of the distinguished American engineer, supported Whistler in nearly all of his projects and views ; but his tower of strength was in the unwavering favor of the enlightened Czar himself. Two lines, to connect the capitals, presented themselves : one along the Valley of the Volga, via Novgorod, and the other the direct line, about four hundred miles long. Whistler recommended the latter, which, bcing concurred in by the entire Technical Commission and approved by the Emperor, was at once adopted. As at this time only one short road, in all Russia, was in operation, therefore Whistler, for his contemplated great work, was forced to organize and plan everything himself, from a wheelbarrow to a steam excavator. As no skilled labor, machinery, nor equipment for railroad construction existed in the country, Whistler had to devise or send to the United States for engines, cars, pile-drivers, bridge models, spike machinery, and tools of almost every kind, with workmen experienced in thcir use. Capable superintendents of machine shops, bridge-builders, contractors, and heads of almost every depart ment of construction had to be imported from America or England. As an illustration of the superiority of our American machinery, it may be mentioned that one of VA histler's steam pile-drivers with three laborers in an hour did the work which one of the Russian hand-drivers required sixteen men during two whole days to perform, or, in other words, did more than a hundred times the amount of service. Whistler had to be constantly on the move, and personally to direct vast and varied operations, involving the construction of 200 locomotives, 6,000 cars, great bridges, numerous workshops, large depots, and num berless structures for various purposes ; and housing, feeding, and direct ing sometimes 60,000 mechanics and laborers. Of course he was assisted by able Russian engineers, but they were timid about adopting bold American devices ; consequently Whistler had to be the responsible and directing head of everything. On New Year's Day of 1843, Whistler was, for the first time, presented at court. He, of course, appeared in the imperial presence with modesty, yet self-possession, ncither dazzled nor daunted by the splendor of the court, or the awful majesty of the throne. Upon the Emperor's invita tion, Whistler with much ease and earnestness unfolded his plans for carrying out his great work, to which his Majesty listened in the most complaisant manner. Whistler in one of his letters, now before me, writes : " The Emperor is a very fine-looking man, very much like Gen eral Scott, but the general never treated me with half the consideration that the Emperor did ; . . . there is that about him which enabled me at once to enter upon a conversation, and tell him all I knew upon the points of his inquiries with as much ease as I could have talked to any private gentleman. I verily believe I never said ' Your Majesty ' once. I de scribed to him the whole route of the road, — its principal difficulties and how they might be overcome. He seemed much interested, often ques tioned me, and was pleased to say, shaking hands with me, as we parted, ' I am sure, sir, you will do it right,' to which I replied, ' You are very kind, sir, and, if you think it well done when it is done, I shall be proud of your approbation.' " 218 N'USIBEli. Class Rank. 1819. Shortly after this interview, Whistler reccived a communication stating that " His Imperial Majesty has been pleased to appoint you a member of the Technical Commission, established in the Department of Rail roads," extending over the whole Empire. Such was the unbounded con fidence of the Emperor in Whistler's skill, ability, and experience that he was constantly called to new duties, he at one time bcing a member of three permanent and many special commissions ; besides bcing con sulted upon military engineering, river and harbor improvements, the great Neva bridge, which was finally completed by Americans, and, upon the special invitation of the Emperor, who personally consulted him, upon the difficult foundations for some new fortifications aud dockyards at Cronstadt, Whistler's views being approved by the Czar though opposed by the Russian engineers. This partiality of the Emperor for Whistler and his professional views of course greatly irritated his imperial engineers, many of whom were nobles of high rank. Though compelled to look up to this young Ameri can officially, they were determined to look down upon him socially, which the Emperor learning, he resolved at once to stop the annoyance to Whistler, whose nobility was not birth but moral worth, eminent talents, and distinguished services. Accordingly, the Czar, taking advantage of a day when he knew many engineer officers would visit the Hermitage, — trie celebrated Russian gallery of art, — entered it without noticing any one till he found Whistler, who had an enthusiastic love for pictures. On secing him, Nicholas went directly towards the American engineer, took his arm, and walked slowly with him entirely around the g.allery, pointing out each chef-d'oeuvre. It is unnecessary to say that, hence forth, Sir. Whistler belonged to the very highest aristocracy. For five years Whistler, day and night, toiled on in the performance of his arduous duties, patiently bearing with every vexation and disappoint ment at the slow progress of the railroad, which ere this he had hoped to complete and then return to his loved home. He was, however, con soled by a personal visit of the Emperor to the whole line of railway and to the numerous workshops, " where," says Whistler, " his Majesty was pleased to express his entire approbation and gratification in the most nattering manner to me and our countrymen, since which he has expressed his thanks in a ukase, aud given me the Cross of the Order of St. Aune, and to Harrison, Winans, aud Eastwick a diamond ring each." Though kept very busy, — for Whistler always desired to make himself useful, professionally and otherwise, — his great work was constantly re tarded from some cause, and, in 1848, the supplies of men and money were especially deficient. This was the year of the French Revolution, the forced abdication of Louis Philippe, and of Louis Napolcon becoming President of the Republic ; in Austria, of the advance of the Hungarian Army on Vienna, of Ferdinand's abdication, and of Francis Joseph's succession ; in Italy, of Charles Albert's calling out his army to repel the encroach ments of Austria, of the revolt at Palermo, and of the Pope's flight from Rome in disguise ; of disturbances in Prussia, Schleswig-Holstcin, and Poland ; and throughout Continental Europe there was a seething caul dron of commotion, which culminated the following year in the overthrow of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the defeat of Charles Albert at Novara, and the march of Russia to aid Austria against Hungary. Thus, between war, which absorbed the resources of Russia, and cholera, which carried off a million of the inhabitants of the Empire, there was little progress to the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railway. Whistler himself had been taken down with the cholera, and, on recover ing, says, Jan. 2, 1849, in a letter to Captain William H. Swift : " Our work actually drags from causes that I cannot remedy ; aud, as if to keep up appearances, 1 am harassed with projects and estimates for things 219 Number. Class Rank. 1819. never to be executed. ... I should like very much to be here to see the completion of this road, because I should be proud of my share in it. It is indeed a noble work, and very much more economically constructed than any other in Europe of a similar character, although there has been much extravagance in some things for effect ; but I fear I shall not see the opening through." These last words were the prophecy of his own fate, for three months later, — Apr. 7, 1849, — stricken with heart dis ease, he breathed his last at St. Petersburg before he had attained the age of forty- nine. The "opening through" was made some years later by Whistler's accomplished successor, — Major Thompson S. Brown, — an other American engineer, who had been graduated from the U. S. Military Academy six years after his distinguished predecessor. At the beginning of the nineteenth century were born three of the most distinguished railroad engineers of the age, — Gcorge W. Whistler, Robert Stephenson, and Isambard K. Brunei, — the first an American, the second an Englishman, and the third of French descent, all of whom died in middle life from overwork. The latter two had the advantages of bcing sons of eminent engineers and inheritors of thcir experience and fame, while the former enjoyed the benefit of military training and education. Each partook of his nationality, Stephenson bcing sagacious, practical, and inventive ; Brunei imaginative, ingenious, and daring ; while Whistler had, in a marked degree, the good qualities of both. As a child, living on a wild frontier, he was exposed to many trials and dangers which taught him self-reliance ; as a boy, at the Military Academy, he acquired methodical habits, the practice of a strict discipline, and the rudiments of mathematics and drawing, — the priceless tools of his life's profession ; and in early manhood he was thoroughly exercised in the hard gymnastics of the unsolved mechanical problems of a new country. Besides, Whistler had rare natural abilities, a ready perception of principles, and was rich in expedients ; possessed great tact, a sound judgment, and an ardent temperament ; united steady perseverance to a prodigious capacity for work ; aud utilized not only the riches of his own mind, but skillfully profited by the experience of others. Though not much of a student of books, he was quick to avail himself of the ripe scholarship of more learned scientists ; and with no thcories of his own to combat, nor pride of opinion to sacrifice, he at once swept away all cobwebs of sophistry, was undaunted by ordinary difficulties, and hence promptly determined his course of action. But, though at times he modestly yielded to the ad verse views of others, it was never from a lack of self-confidence, or capacity for originating and executing the boldest conceptions. His was always the leading mind among associates ; and his plans, broad and comprchensive, ever aimed at securing the maximum results with the minimum expenditure of time, labor, and money. Cautious, tentative, and practical, Whistler was pre-eminently a safe man, and never the pro jector of wild schemes ; yet, as the friend of progress, he early and urgently advocated that states should build railways, that the railways might build up the states. When he began his career of engineering, there were only a few miles of quarry and mining tracks laid in this country ; hence, unguided by experience, he was compelled to make the surveys, select the routes, devise the structures, secure adequate funds, economic ally build and put in operation railroads which, with reasonable certainty, would pay dividends to corporations. In the midst of this usefulness and success in his native land, he was called away to develop his higher facul ties in the creation of the internal improvements of a vast empire. Whistler, when he went to Russia, was in the prime of life ; brought up as a soldier, he was adapted to the usages of a military nation ; and his American experience on surveys, in machine shops, and with the con bti uction of public works, admirably fitted him for his new vocation. But 220 Number. Class Hank. 1819. no beginning could have been more unpromising than his on the St. Peters burg and Moscow Road, where nearly his whole resources were his own mental activity, trained inventive faculties, varied professional experience, and strong will to conquer difficulties. Few statistics and little railway knowledge were at hand ; all plant, machinery, and tools were wanting, and no drilled personnel was to be found to administer the various and complicated departments of this great road. Whistler had to create everything from a spike machine to a locomotive engine, and to play ex ecutive officer everywhere and in everything. His was a mighty task, greater even than the construction of the largest of the Egyptian pyramids, the fourth wonder of the ancient world. According to Herodotus, one hundred thousand men were employed for ten years in preparing and transporting, and twenty years in building, the pyramid of Chcops. To rear this mountain of stone involved the lifting of 15,733,000,000 cubic feet one foot high ; whereas Whistler, with about one third of the force in one sixth of the time, had a much more Herculean labor to perform. Though himself the Atlas whose shoulders upheld the mighty load, his personal energy imparted itself to his subordinates, quickening and in fluencing them as strong characters always do, flowing down into thcirs, and bringing out thcir fullest powers. Morcover, the whole education of Whistler's life had inculcated a sympathy with his workmen, who re spected his mastership as he did thcir manhood, thus enabling him to enforce the strictest discipline while securing thcir cheerful obedience and best exertions. Besides, his uniform kindness and good temper, his social disposition and familiar intercourse, and his readiness to converse intelli gently upon almost every topic, brought him in easy contact with men, enabling him to select from among them the best agents to work out his own ideas. Hence, through his chosen assistants, he organized and di rected vast bands of skilled mechanics and hordes of common laborers who were employed so many years in carrying his magnificent concep tions to thcir successful accomplishment. But his chief reliance was upon himself ; everything bore the impress of his own patient thought ; each detail was as carefully considered as if constituting the whole scheme, and nothing was neglected to attain the desired end. Materials were required to be the best of thcir kind ; structures had to be built solidly and trustily, and the whole work was to be honest in construction and economical in cost. Of the millions expended by his order, though cor ruption sat in high places near him, his integrity withstood every trial and temptation. Frequently called upon to act as arbitrator between contractors and the government, such value was attached to Whistler's impartial opinions, great experience, and sound judgment that both par ties promptly yielded to his upright awards. No mean jealousy nor petty expediency could swerve him from the path of rectitude, and, if ever a bias lingered in his breast, it was for the friendless workman. Whistler was not simply an eminent engineer, but a man of broad culture and a profound thinker, and possessed a gifted and well-balanced mind. His hospitable mansion was the resort of persons learned in art, in literature, and in science ; and his ready and intelligent discussions on these topics inspired his guests with admiration of his acquirements and deference to his opinions. His favorite resorts were picture galleries, music halls, and assemblages of magnetic men ; for he had graphic skill and critical connoissenrship, delighted in harmony, and was a charming flutist, and his native humor and esprit imparted to his sparkling conver sation both vigor and originality, making him the delightful companion of all ages, sexes, and conditions. In manners he was simple, modest, and unassuming, but always manly; though frank in expression and social in spirit, he never sacrificed his sense of self-respect ; and, whether asso ciated with subordinates, equals, or superiors, he maintained the quiet 221 Number. Class Rank. 1819. ease and simple deportment of one of Nature's noblemen. His exquisite refinement, keen sympathy, and delicate sensibility shed a lovable atmos phere around, which imparted a genial warmth to all within its influence. Prosperity never elosed his heart, nor stole away the generosity of his soul, for he had a hand as open as day for melting charity, and he wonld often be parsimonious to himself that he might provide for the necessities of those who had narrow elaims upon his benevolence. It, therefore, is not surprising that this lord of unselfishness and king of industry was an idol among his friends, to whom he was ever kind and considerate ; a great favorite with his professional brethren, whose merits, talents, and assistance he was the first to recognize ; and that, when he breathed his last in a forcign land, his death was mourned in two continents where he had labored and been loved. " Such men are not forgot as soon as cold ; Thelr fragrant memory will outlast thelr tomb, EmbalmM forever in its own perfume."
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