This story of DNA for adoption research tells how one Genealogy Gems listener discovered biological roots that were closer to her adopted home than expected.
You never know what you’re going to learn when you start researching the biological roots of an adopted ancestor. And that was certainly the case for Katie from Pacifica, CA. Recently, she wrote me to share her story of researching an adopted ancestor. Understandably, people hope for a happy ending when using DNA for adoption research. But in Katie’s case, it may be just the beginning. Here’s why:
“When I set out on this geni-journey, my goal was to find my grandfather’s birth parents. [He was adopted.] But as I read all the old family letters and newspaper clippings, I found myself getting so attached to his adoptive family. I was saddened that we weren’t blood-related, because I felt so connected and proud of them.
My mother and I decided to take the AncestryDNA test, not sure what we’d find. When we got the results back, the strangest thing happened. My closest match with a family tree was a descendant of my grandfather’s adoptive grandfather.
My other closest match was adopted. He had been searching for his birth parents since the 1970s. When I called my adopted match, I think we were both excited and confused, not really sure how we’d be able to help each other in our search. As we compared notes, everything started clicking together. He began to cry. This mystery cousin of mine was no cousin at all. He was my grandfather’s half-brother. He was my great uncle, who was raised by a different, unrelated adoptive family!
Katie’s grandfather at 4 years old, shortly after being adopted by Angela.
My grandfather, Joseph, turned out to be the biological nephew of his adoptive mother, Angela. His birth father was Angela’s brother, Paul. Angela’s own son tragically died of a ruptured appendix at age 4. Her husband, Ralph, was a merchant ship captain who traveled regularly all over the world, but most commonly between Oakland, CA and Brooklyn, NY.
According to family lore, less than a year after their son’s passing, Ralph mysteriously brought a freckly little boy (my grandpa) home to Oakland with him from Brooklyn, shocking his wife with this child she was suddenly expected to raise. Can you imagine that boat ride, all the way through the Panama Canal, as a confused orphan? And oh the family rumors that started!
Using DNA, we were able to put those rumors to rest. I’m not sure if Angela ever learned the truth– I’m not sure what Ralph told her, whether she even knew she was raising her own brother’s boy. All those years grandpa never asked who his birth parents were because he was afraid of hurting the family’s feelings, and little did he know he was being raised by his aunt the whole time. He probably met or at least wrote to his father without ever knowing it.
I have now met both my great half uncle, whose adoptive name is Bill (born Paul, in honor of his deceased birth father)– he lives in NY– and his son [Tom].
At 69 years old, that was his first time meeting a blood relative. I also connected with two living cousins in their 90s
William Paul Nolan (left), born Paul Toomey, and his son, Tom (right), meeting Katie, their first known blood relative.
thanks to their very sweet children and nieces. I had photos of them from 1935, standing with my grandfather when he was only four years old, having no idea who they were until I started doing research.
Katie’s grandfather as a little boy (in the sailor suit, second from left) with his adoptive first cousins (who were of blood relation), including Jack (10) and Loretta McKinnon (13). On the right is Katie’s grandfather’s adoptive sister (who would have been his first cousin by birth), Clare.
I couldn’t believe they were still around! I was able to meet them last year. I was also able to provide them with photos of their father, as they had only
Jack (90, left) and Loretta (93, right) McKinnon meet Katie for the first time in 2015, 80 years after the photo with her grandfather was taken.
a few of their own.
I now send regular emails to the whole reunited family to update them on my genealogy discoveries.
I went on an homage journey to Prince Edward Island, the place my adoptive and birth great grandparents grew up, and was able to lay flowers at the gravestones of our long lost family members. The house they grew up in was still standing. Still being lived in, even!
It was such an amazing discovery after feeling so mysteriously close to that family, to know that it wasn’t all in my head. And to find out I had an uncle still living? Amazing.”
When Katie’s story landed in my inbox, it reminded me how lucky I am that so many of you share your personal, and inspiring stories! Thank you to Katie for giving us permission to share this inspiring story about using DNA for adoption research. You can read more about her family history adventures at her blog called McKinnon Ancestry.
More DNA for Adoption Gems
DNA for Adoption Research: Nice to Meet You!
Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 178: CeCe Moore Talks about Genealogy and Adoption (Listen for free)
DNA Testing for Adoptees: Advice from Your DNA Guide
Are your DNA ethnicity results exciting, confusing, inconsistent, exasperating…or all of the above?
Recently Kate expressed on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page her frustration with her ethnicity results provided by AncestryDNA. She gets right to the point when she writes, “the way they refer to the results is confusing.”
Kate, you are not alone. Many genealogists have been lured into taking the autosomal DNA test at one of the three major DNA testing companies just to get this glimpse into their past. Remember that the autosomal DNA test can reveal information about both your mother’s side and your father’s side of your family tree. Many take the test hoping for confirmation of a particular ancestral heritage, others are just curious to see what the results will show. Though their purposes in initiating the testing may vary, the feeling of bewilderment and befuddlement upon receiving the results is fairly universal.
Kate has some specific questions about her results that I think most will share. Let’s take a look at a couple of them. First up, Kate wants to know if our family tree data in any way influences the ethnicity results provided. The answer is an unequivocal “no.” None of the testing companies look at your family tree in any way when determining your ethnicity results. However, the results are dependent on the family trees of the reference population. The reference populations are large numbers of people whose DNA has been tested and THEIR family history has been documented for many generations in that region. The testing companies compare your DNA to theirs and that’s how they assign you to an ethnicity (and place of ancestral origin?).
Next Kate asks, “Do they mean England when they report Great Britain?” Or to put it more broadly, how do these testing companies decide to divide up the world? All of the companies handle this a little bit differently. Let’s look at Ancestry as an example. When you login to view your ethnicity results, you can click on the “show all regions” box below your results to get a list of all of the possible categories that your DNA could be placed in. These 26 categories include nine African regions, Native American, three Asian regions, eight European regions, two Pacific Island regions, two West Asian regions, and then Jewish, which is not a region, per se, but a genetically distinct group.
Clicking on each individual location in the left sidebar will bring up more information on the right about that region. For example, clicking on Great Britain tells us that DNA associated with this region is primarily found in England, Scotland, and Wales, but is also found in Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Basically, this is telling us that people with generations of ancestry in Great Britain are quite a genetic mix from many areas.
The first chart here shows that if we are to test the DNA of 100 natives of one of these primary regions (England, Scotland or Wales) then 50 of them willhave the great Britain “pattern” of DNA covering 60% or more of their entire genome, and 50 of them will have that pattern in less than 60% of their DNA. The fact that this half-way number is so low, only 60%, tells us that there is a lot of uncertainty in this ethnicity estimate because there is so much mixture in this region. Kate, for you that means that when you see Great Britain in your ethnicity estimate, it could mean England, or maybe it means Italy- Ancestry can’t be certain.
But that uncertainty isn’t the same for every region. Pictured here is also the ethnicity chart for Ireland. You can see that half the people who are native to Ireland will have 95% or more Irish DNA. Kate, for us this means that if you have Irish DNA in your results, you can be pretty certain it came from Ireland. From these tables you can see your membership in some regions is more robust than others, and Ancestry is using these tables to try to help us tell the difference.
In the end, the ethnicity results reported by each DNA testing company are highly dependent on two factors: the reference populations they use to compare your DNA against, and the statistical algorithms they use to compute your similarities to these populations. Every company is doing both of these things just a little bit differently.
Kate, if you want to get another take on your ethnicity results, you can take your data over to Family Tree DNA, or you can be tested at 23andMe. A free option is to head over to Gedmatch and try out their various ethnicity tools. If you need help downloading and transferring, you can head over to my website: http://www.yourdnaguide.com/transferring. Most people have found after searching in multiple places that their “true” results are probably somewhere in the middle.
While these ethnicity results can be interesting and useful, for most they will just be a novelty; something interesting and exciting. I have found that their most useful application is acting like a fly on a fishing line. They attract our family members into DNA testing where we can then set the hook on the real goal: family history.
If you’re ready to bait your own hook, I recommend you check out my series of DNA quick guides. These guides will help you choose the right DNA tests for your genetic genealogy questions. You’ll become a smart shopper, more prepared to choose the testing company that’s right for you. And you’ll be prepared to maximize your results from each company, rather than look at them blankly and wondered what the heck you just spent that money on. Click here to see all my DNA guides: I recommend the value-priced bundle!
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
It’s no surprise to find another DNA post in the #8 spot on our Top 10 genealogy blog post countdown. The topic: understanding your AncestryDNA matches.
In this post, Genealogy Gems resident DNA expert Diahan Southard takes on a confused question sent in by a listener, who didn’t understand why certain people were showing up in her AncestryDNA results.
This post explains SO beautifully a couple of key concepts:
- the difference between your AncestryDNA genetic matches and the DNA Circles/New Ancestry Discoveries that pull from both your genetic results and your family tree; AND
- three reasons someone may show up in your AncestryDNA matches as a New Ancestry Discovery–and which one of those scenarios actually helps your research.
Since running my own autosomal test through AncestryDNA a few months ago, I find myself coming back repeatedly to Diahan’s series of posts to help me better understand and use those results. I know I’m not alone, since three of Diahan’s DNA posts made our Top 10 this year! (We covered #10 yesterday.)
Click here to read the above post, and click here to find a list of all DNA-related posts on our genealogy blog.
If you’ve done your homework and decided that an AncestryDNA test is what should be next for your family history research, thank you for purchasing one by clicking here. Your purchase supports the free Genealogy Gem blog and podcast. (Thank you! YOU are a gem!)
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
Over a million people have done DNA testing with 23andMe, many lured by that company’s health information tools. Learn to use their genetic genealogy tools to get the most out of testing there! (and keep reading for a special limited time sale!)
I am one of the million+ people who have tested my DNA with 23andMe. Early on in my days as a 23andMe customer, I spotted a match who listed ancestry from Washington state, where I grew up. Because I have had both of my parents tested, 23andMe told me that this match was on my dad’s side. I sent an inquiry out to the match and named a few of my paternal surnames as possible connections between us.
As it turns out, this match was my dad’s half first cousin! They are about the same age and had played together all the time as boys, but their families had lost touch over the years. What was even more exciting for me, is that using the tools at 23andMe I was able to see the actual physical locations on the DNA that I shared with this cousin.
Knowing that our common ancestor was Lucy J. Claunch, I knew that these actual physical, tangible pieces of me were once pieces of her. All at once I felt a discernible shift in myself and the way I viewed my connection to her. She was no longer a name on a genealogical record, she was my ancestor, and I wanted to know more. For me, it took the DNA connection to give me that added oomph to turn my genealogy into family history. As it happened, that DNA connection came through 23andMe.
How to Focus on Genealogy DNA testing with 23andMe
23andMe is primarily focused on empowering personal health. They recently announced the restored ability to provide limited health information to their customers. The wide variety of content on their website can easily distract you from the genetic genealogy tools they are offering. To help you focus on these tools and use them to verify and extend your family tree, I’ve just released a NEW laminated quick guide, Understanding 23andMe.
Understanding 23andMe addresses the most pressing genetic genealogy questions for those doing DNA testing with 23andMe, like:
- How can I control how much information is being shared with others?
- How can I enter my genealogical information?
- How do I know when I have a good match?
- Is the YDNA and mtDNA information they give the same as what I see at other places?
- What is the best way to use the ethnicity results presented?
Purchase this guide NOW in the Genealogy Gems store and you’ll SAVE BIG! It’s only $5.95 right now–regularly $8.95! You’ll also save if you buy it with a super bundle of my entire series of DNA quick guides–7 of them now to help you “do your DNA” right from start to finish!
More DNA at Genealogy Gems
A family and its female slave house servants in Brazil, c.1860. Wikimedia Commons image. Click to view full source citation.
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“This is really the first time a DNA testing company has so fully integrated genetics and genealogy. We can now find cousins in the database who do not share our particular genetics, but who do share some of the genetics of our common ancestor. This is huge.” -Diane Southard, Your DNA Guide
I blogged a couple of weeks ago about some changes taking place over at AncestryDNA. You will recall that they are planning to slash your match list to allow only “invited guests” to your personal DNA party. (Read that post to be reminded why this is a good thing.)
Ancestry has officially announced the launch of this feature update and reports that on average users will see an 80% reduction in the number of matches shown. I had a chance to look at the new site before it launched and one of my favorite features is the question mark that appears next to your match. Clicking on the question mark on your match page will bring up a menu of references to help you better understand the inner workings of matching at Ancestry, including those confidence levels that are a part of every relationship prediction. In this table below you can see that ancestry has tried to give you some fairly solid guidelines by which to assess the quality of your matches. You will want to focus on those matches with a confidence score of “High” or above to have the best chance of genealogical success. But an update to the matching feature is only the beginning of the new features at AncestryDNA. Today Ancestry announced “DNA Circles,” a tool that helps you identify others who share common ancestors with you. The new “DNA Circles” feature has the potential to impact the way you do genetic genealogy at Ancestry. Here’s why: Autosomal DNA (the kind that Ancestry is testing) has a spotty inheritance pattern. On average we only have half of the DNA of each of our parents, only 25% of our grandparents, only 12.5% of our great grandparents and so on. This means that AncestryDNA and its competitors (Family Tree DNA and 23andMe) are only able to genetically identify 50% of your genetic 4th cousins. This means that there could be 50% MORE people in these databases that you are actually related to, people that should have been invited to your DNA party, but didn’t have a ticket. Now with DNA Circles, there is a metaphorical “after-party.” After parties are “hosted” by one of your relatives. Ancestry searches your pedigree and that of your matches back 7 generations looking for suitable hosts. An ancestor qualifies as a host if they have two or more descendants who hold an invitation. At this after-party you can meet some of these long lost cousins that, while related to you, lost their ticket to your DNA party. After-party invitations are provided to those who meet three very important qualifications:
- They have their DNA attached to their PUBLIC family tree.
- AND that PUBLIC family tree has the name of the hosting ancestor on it.
- AND this person shares DNA with at least one other person who also meets the above two criteria.
Here’s an example. Below is an image of the new AncestryDNA home page. You can see I am a part of two DNA Circles (some of you will be much more popular and invited to several after-parties. For me–just the two for now). Let’s take a closer look at my DNA Circle hosted by my paternal 5th great grandfather Minus Griggs (who knew the guy liked parties?!). Clicking on the DNA circle brings up this page where there are three things I want to show you:
- This is your relationship to the host.
- This is a list of the individuals who have passed the three criteria listed above and have been invited to this after-party.
- This is the innovative part. You see that the first two matches (after me–I am listed first) have only “Tree Match” in this column. This means that these two people, both descendants of our host, Minus Griggs, didn’t ever appear on my DNA match list. We do not share enough DNA to be considered genetic relatives. However, the third member of the circle has the “DNA Match” designation, meaning that this match DOES appear on my match page. In fact, this is my ONLY DNA match in the circle (there are three others not shown here). That means that this DNA circle has connected me to FIVE other cousins. All because I share DNA and genealogy with the third member of this circle, and he shares DNA and genealogy with everyone else.
I can click on each circle member to see exactly how Ancestry THINKS we are related. This is my first opportunity to DOUBLE CHECK this relationship that Ancestry has handed me, to be sure that both my match and I really did receive tickets to the same after party.
Here is what that page looks like for me and one of my matches.
This is really the first time a DNA testing company has so fully integrated genetics and genealogy. We can now find cousins in the database who do not share our particular genetics, but who do share some of the genetics of our common ancestor. In my opinion, this is huge.
There is one catch, and it is going to be a big one for some of you. In order to see your DNA Circles, you have to be an Ancestry.com subscriber.
Even though I am excited about these changes, I can’t help but hope for just one step more. In order to identify these DNA Circles, Ancestry has identified pieces of DNA that can be fairly reliably assigned to a particular ancestor. There are likely others in the Ancestry database who have these pieces of DNA, we can call them partial tickets to the after-party, but who are lacking the second requirement: a pedigree documenting a relationship to that ancestor. I hope in the future the folks at Ancestry will honor those partial ticket holders, and allow them to the after-party, so we can sit around with our peanuts and pretzels and figure out how we are all related. Until then, I am going to enjoy the two after-parties hosted by my two generous ancestors.
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