Searching for birth parents? This adoption research success story involved several proven techniques: mapping DNA matches, research legwork–and years of patient determination.
Adoption Research Inspiration
This inspiring letter about adoption research came to me from Liz:
Thank you for your part in a major milestone of my genealogy research! You motivated me, educated me, and shared many wonderful resources throughout hours and hours of your podcasts. After listening to you talk with Diahan Southard a few times, it finally dawned on me that I should contact her to help me better understand DNA and its impact on my research.
Here’s the “story” as it unfolded for me.
During much of the last 30+ years my brother-in-law, Chuck, searched constantly for his birth mother. Chuck maintained hope that information he requested from the state of Michigan or newly available electronic adoption records might give him enough clues to help him find his mother. Six or seven years ago, Chuck was disabled by a stroke and a few years following the stroke vascular dementia robbed him of his ability to continue the search for his mother. In January 2015, we were able to get Chuck (despite the dementia) to spit in the test tube and provide a DNA sample. Little did we know he would be dead by Thanksgiving. As I wrote Chuck’s obituary, I realized I could offer one other piece of assistance to Chuck’s widow and children. I offered to continue his quest to find his birth mother.”
Then Liz outlined the steps she took to carry on the search:
“After gathering the limited detail we had (birth date, location, possible mother’s name and age) I began my research in earnest. Ultimately I:
created a “proposed” family tree for Chuck based on Chuck’s birth mother’s surname and his birth location,
reviewed Chuck’s DNA matches and
began to narrow down the family tree.
I used Diahan Southard’s website tutorials as the foundation for my analysis, put together a PowerPoint presentation with my research and theory and presented the information to her in a video conference. She found no fault in my logic and helped me plan my next steps: the search for Chuck’s birth father.”
Eventually, the paper trail and the genetic research came together to tell a story:
“Last week my niece finally received the adoption records from the state of Michigan, eighty-six years after Chuck was born, over twenty years after Chuck first requested them and almost a year after his daughter requested the records. I am impatiently awaiting my copy! What I do know so far:
Postcard of Harper Hospital, MI, posted on RootsWeb (click to view).
My research (thanks to you and Diahan and DNA) accurately determined the identity of Chuck’s mother.
She had a very difficult young life and died of TB—tuberculosis – when she was just 25 years old in 1939.
Chuck’s mother became pregnant with Chuck while a ward of the state and an Inmate at a girls school.
Chuck’s mother became pregnant during a time when the school “farmed out” Inmates to Harper Hospital to work as nurses’ aides.
Both Chuck’s mother and her sister checked on Chuck after turning him over to the state, both in an attempt to get him back and to learn how he was doing.
It was heartwarming to learn that Chuck actually had a birth family who cared about him! I wish he had known!”
WOW, what an incredible story! Congratulations to Liz on such thorough and persistent research. I feel very sure that Chuck knows that not only did he have a birth family that cared, but also a wonderful sister-in-law (although I would guess he well aware of that even before he passed.)
I’m also thrilled that Genealogy Gems was able to play some part in Chuck and Liz’s story.
Get Ready for Adoption Research Success
Are you looking for someone’s birth parents? Get started with the DNA strategies Liz used:
Take a DNA test from a company such as AncestryDNA, which has an enormous database of testers and family trees. Click here to learn more about your DNA testing options.
Map your DNA test results using Google Earth and/or, if you test with AncestryDNA, the site’s tool within an individual DNA match view for identifying locations you have in common on your tree. Click here to learn more about using Google Earth for genealogy by watching my free full-length video class on using Google Earth for genealogy.
Share your DNA results on other websites (such as Gedmatch) to increase your chances of finding matches.
To access Diahan’s great video tutorials on her site that Liz used, click here— as a Genealogy Gems reader you’ll get a great discount on them.
Along with DNA evidence, create the best paper trail possible, as Liz did. Scour all available records and follow up on all possible leads for any information about the birth parents. In this instance, Liz needed to rely on records created by or about institutions, such as the hospital and state girls’ school. Genealogy Gems Premium members will find tips for finding and using these records in my newest Premium video tutorial, Institutional Records. (If you’re not a member yet, click here to learn more. )
Your genetic family tree is not the same as your genealogical pedigree–and not just because of non-paternity events and adoption. Here’s how.
Your genealogical pedigree, if you are diligent or lucky (or both!) can contain hundreds, even thousands of names and can go back countless generations. You can include as many collateral lines as you want. You can add several sources to your findings, and these days you can even add media, including pictures and copies of the actual documents. Every time someone gets married or welcomes a new baby, you can add that to your chart. In short, there is no end to the amount of information that can make up your pedigree chart.
Not so for your genetic pedigree.
Your genetic pedigree contains only those ancestors for whom you have received some of their DNA. You do not have DNA from all of your ancestors.
You do not have DNA from all of your ancestors.
Using some fancy math we can calculate that the average generation in which you start to see that you have inherited zero blocks of DNA from an ancestor is about seven. But of course, most of us aren’t trying to figure out how much of our DNA we received from great great great grandma Sarah. Most of us just have a list of DNA matches and we are trying to figure out if we are all related to 3X great grandma Sarah. So how does that work?
Well, the first thing we need to recognize is that living descendants of Sarah’s would generally be our fourth cousins. Again, bring in the fancy math and we can learn that living, documented fourth cousins who have this autosomal DNA test completed will only share DNA with each other 50% of the time.
Yes, only half.
Only half of the time your DNA will tell you what your paper trail might have already figured out: that you and cousin Jim are fourth cousins, related through sweet 3X great grandma Sarah.
But here’s where the numbers are in our favor. You have, on average, 940 fourth cousins. So if you are only sharing DNA with 470 of them, that’s not quite so bad, is it? And it only takes one or two of them to be tested and show up on your match list. Their presence there, and their documentation back to sweet Sarah, helps to verify the genealogy you have completed. It also allows you to gather others who might share this connection so you can learn even more about Sarah and her family. Plus, if you find Jim, then Jim will have 470 4th cousins as well, some of which will not be on your list, giving you access to even more of the 940.
This genetic family tree not matching up exactly with your traditional family tree also manifests itself in your ethnicity results, though there are other reasons for discrepancies there as well. Read this article to learn more about why ethnicity results may not match.
In short, this DNA stuff is not a stand alone tool, but if you combine it with your traditional resources, it can be a very powerful tool for verifying and extending your family history. Remember, just because a cousin doesn’t show a match in DNA, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a genealogical connection! Genealogical research and primary sources can still prove connections even if DNA doesn’t show it.
Ready to learn more?
My goals as Your DNA Guide here at Genealogy Gems is to help you get the most from your DNA testing efforts, and to make it fun and easy-to-understand along the way. I’ve got more DNA articles for you. Check these out:
The Family Tree DNA ethnicity report has been updated, and this means more details about ethnic and geographic origins for both autosomal and mtDNA DNA testers.
Family Tree DNA recently announced a round of updates to myOrigins, its mapping tool for ethnic and geographic ancestry. New are more detailed breakdowns of their population clusters and in-depth descriptions of them. (Visit Family Tree DNA’s website here.)
It is so exciting to see new or updated reports from our genetic genealogy testing companies! It is a good reminder of two things: First, that the results we currently have, especially in the arena of our ethnicity results, will continually be improving. Second, that once you test with any company, these improvements are added to your account and your results are updated automatically.
Family Tree DNA is the only company offering a complete look at your mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the one that traces your direct maternal line. They recently updated the deep ancestral assignments for these mtDNA tests. The updates were based on scientific advances in the world of mtDNA and can sometimes give you a more specific idea of where your ancestral line came from.
In addition to the mtDNA updates, FTDNA has also updated their MyOrigins results as part of your autosomal DNA test. Previously your MyOrigins results broke up the world into 18 different pieces and you were told your affiliation with each. Now with 6 new populations added, there are a total of 24. The changes include splitting three categories into smaller parts, like they are now reporting Finland separate from Siberia, as well as adding three new categories in South America, West Middle East, and Oceania.
Your MyOrigins results will now also include trace amounts, which are those percentages that are very low and therefore do not carry a high confidence. But many genetic genealogists wanted to see any area that may have been detected, and so FTDNA responded.
How to Review Your Family Tree DNA Ethnicity Report
1. Log in to your Family Tree DNA account. From your dashboard, select myOrigins.
2. On the myOrigins page, click View all to see your full ethnic percentages, as defined by Family Tree DNA. You can also click View myOrigins map to see your results mapped out. (The map looks like the one at the beginning of this post.)
3. When you click to view all your ethnicity results, you’ll see a more detailed breakdown of your population groups. Click View all population descriptions to read more about each one.
The Impact of Updated Family Tree DNA Ethnicity Reports
On the whole, are these updated results going to significantly impact your family history research if you have tested at Family Tree DNA? Likely not. The greater impact is just in the idea that these things can be improved, updated, and changed, which means our experience will continue to improve, and more people are likely to test. More people in the database means more possible cousins. More possible cousins means more genealogy breakthroughs, and a more complete picture of our heritage, and that is what we are really all after.
Learn More About DNA Testing for Genealogy
Click here to see individual guides for topics I talked about above, such as testing at Family Tree DNA, testing your autosomal or mitochondrial DNA and getting started (in which I explain ethnicity results). Or click here for the ultimate Genetic Genealogy Jumbo Pack: ALL 10 of my guides PLUS my video class, “Getting Started with Genetic Genealogy.”
Combining DNA test types can give you a better picture of your overall genealogical relationship to someone else. Combine your autosomal test results with the results of your mitochondrial DNA or YDNA test to make some amazing connections today!
My family recently visited the Jelly Belly Factory in northern California. Of course at the end of the tour, they funneled us into their gift shop where we felt compelled to buy jelly beans and other sundry treats. My favorite part of the big box we bought were the recipes on the side. We could turn the already delicious variety of flavors into even more pallet-pleasing options. Who knew!
This got me thinking about DNA, of course!
Combining DNA Test Types
Specifically, I was thinking about the power of combining multiple test types to get a better picture of our overall genealogical relationship to someone else.
If you recall, there are three kinds of DNA tests available for genealogists: autosomal DNA, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and Y chromosome DNA (YDNA). Much of the focus these days is on how to use the autosomal DNA in our family history research. This may be because the autosomal DNA covers both sides of your family tree, so it is seen as a catchall for our family history. While it is a very powerful tool for our research, it can also be a bit overwhelming to try to determine how you are related to someone else.
Let’s look at an example from my own family history. My mom matched with Tom at 23andMe. Their predicted genealogical relationship, based on how much DNA they shared, was second cousins. To begin, we need to understand which ancestor could be shared by people who are genetic second cousins. To figure it out, you can count backwards like this: people who share parents are siblings, sharing grandparents makes you first cousins, and sharing great-grandparents makes you second cousins.
Image credit: Diahan Southard.
So, if my mom and Tom are true second cousins (meaning there aren’t any of those once-removed situations going on, but that’s a subject for another time), then we should be able to find their common ancestor among their great-grandparents.
Each of us has eight great-grandparents. Because we can’t usually narrow down shared DNA to a single person, but rather to an ancestral couple, we are really just looking at four possible ancestral couple connections between my mom and Tom. My mom doesn’t have any known ancestors, as she was adopted, so we can only evaluate Tom’s line. Tom was kind enough to share his pedigree chart with us, and he had all four of his couples listed. But how do we know which one is the shared couple with my mom?
Narrowing Down the Results
Now, for those of you without an adoption, you will have some other clues to help you figure out which of the four (or eight, if you are looking at a third cousin, or 16 if you are looking at a fourth cousin) ancestral couples is shared between you and your match. Start by looking for shared surnames. If that comes up short, evaluate each couple by location. If you see an ancestral couple who is in a similar location to your line, then that couple becomes your most likely connecting point. What then? Do genealogy!! Find out everything you can about that couple and their descendants to see if you can connect that line to your own.
However in my mom’s case, we didn’t have any surnames or locations to narrow down which ancestral couple was the connection point between our line and Tom’s. But even if we had locations, that may not have helped as Tom is very homogenous! All of his ancestors were from the same place! But, we did have one very important clue: the mitochondrial DNA. Remember mtDNA traces a direct maternal line. So my mom’s mtDNA is the same as her mom’s, which is the same as her mom’s etc.
At 23andMe they don’t test the full mitochondrial DNA sequence (FMS) like they do at Family Tree DNA. For family history purposes, you really want the FMS to help you narrow down your maternal line connection to others. But 23andMe does provide your haplogroup, or deep ancestral group. These groups are named with a letter/number combination. My mom is W1 and we noticed that Tom is also W1.
This meant that my mom and Tom share a direct maternal line – or put another way, Tom’s mother’s mother’s mother was the same as my mom’s mother’s mother’s mother. That means there is only one couple out of the four possible couples that could connect my mom to Tom: his direct maternal line ancestor Marianna Huck, and her husband Michael Wetzstien.
Now you can only perform this wondrous feat if you and your match have both tested at 23andMe, or have both taken the mtDNA test at Family Tree DNA.
Just as a Popcorn Jelly Belly plus two Blueberry Jelly Bellies makes a blueberry muffin, combining your autosomal DNA test results with your mtDNA test results (or YDNA for that matter) can yield some interesting connections that just might break down that family history brick wall.
Learn more about DNA test types with these helpful guides:
Don’t go it alone with DNA. My quick reference guides will guide you through the process in easy to understand language. You’ll get more out of your DNA test results with these guides:
Trying to contact your DNA matches can be frustrating when they don’t respond, but it’s still worth reaching out to them. This researcher’s example shows a good reason why.
Contact Your DNA Matches
Recently, I heard from Genealogy Gems Premium website member Ruth*, whose DNA success story reminds me of the value of reaching out to DNA matches, even if the general response rate is low or slow. She says:
“I’ve been researching my family tree for over 20 years and sometimes it can get boring…because most of the lines are pretty much out as far as I can go and I’m now just working on brick walls! I love listening to your podcast because it motivates me to keep going!
Like many of your listeners, I have taken the autosomal DNA test. It has been an awesome tool helping me confirm family lines and sometimes finding new ones. However, I’m sure most of your readers know that for some reason a lot of those DNA matches and even tree owners in general, do not respond to emails or messages. It can be very frustrating, especially if it is one of those lines that you really could use some help on. The lack of response to inquiries sometimes makes me wonder if I should even try to make contact. Well, I want to tell your listeners, that yes it is worth it.
Recently, I was browsing trees and I came to a tree that listed my 3rd great-grandfather Daniel Cannon; however, this tree listed Daniel’s wife as Mary Ann Watkins and I had her as Mary Ann Cook! Well, I decided to contact the owner of that tree and explained I had Daniel’s wife as a Cook. The two of us started emailing back and forth and I found out this gentleman, whose last name is Watkins, had taken a DNA test and was in Ancestry.com’s database.
Sure enough, when I searched my mom’s matches I found him. Mr. Watkins shared the information he had [which was] an excerpt that listed the heirs of G. B. Watkins and Elizabeth Smith. On that list was Mary Ann Constable. From the census records, I knew that Mary Ann Cannon had married Thomas Constable after her husband had died. The marriage license for Mary Ann Cannon and Thomas Constable is no longer at the courthouse, but I was able to get a copy of the excerpt of the book it was recorded in. So now I’m climbing a whole different tree!
So, go ahead and reach out to those matches or those people who have trees with different information from you. You never know when you’ll find information and end up with a new line to research!”
Time to Maximize Your DNA Matches
Our resident genetic genealogist, Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard, has written a series of 3 DNA quick guides to help you maximize your DNA testing experience:
This “value pack” can help you sort your matches more wisely, reach out to them in a positive way, and track your correspondence. Click here to read more about these guides and order your own. (Also available as digital downloads.)
Time to Test Your DNA Today
These companies all provide autosomal DNA testing, the most popular kind of DNA testing, and the kind Ruth used. Autosomal testing matches you to genetic relatives on both sides of your family tree to a depth of about 4-6 generations. Learn a little about each by clicking on the names below.